On a recent Thursday morning in East Palestine, Ohio, the high school band director Jennifer Mollenkopf was in a panic.
Mollenkopf was co-directing a school production of “The Lion King Jr.,” and the sound system had suddenly stopped working. The dress rehearsal was scheduled for that night and opening night was the next day. The teacher who usually runs the school’s tech equipment had just undergone a kidney transplant and was in the hospital.
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So Mollenkopf called in a former band director, Jeff DiCesare, who knew a little bit about sound systems. But DiCesare was flummoxed. The sound had been off for nearly two hours.
Mollenkpf began to think through potential backup plans for the musical accompaniment. “I could dig out the piano and go from there, but I haven’t really prepared for that,” she said. “I’ve played the piano my whole life, but I’m a little rusty.”
Back in class, some of the 52 students in the production heard about the tech problems and wonder if the production would be canceled, including senior Laredo Cienik who was supposed to play Shenzi, the lead hyena.
Cienik is one of a handful of seniors at East Palestine High School whose drama careers have been severely disrupted, at first by a global pandemic and more recently by the explosive train derailment on Feb. 3. The wrecked train eventually released tens of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate.
The derailment meant they were put out of school again, unable to rehearse, just as life seemed to be getting back to normal. Last year the school put on a production of “Newsies” — its first in more than two years — and students, teachers and parents all reminisced about what a triumph the musical had been.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had, like, such the best time ever,” Cienik said. It was a return to normalcy, she said — a return to spending time with friends, a return to the kinds of things kids like her had been longing to do.
Mollenkopf and her co-director, Emily Randolph, decided to follow the success of “Newsies” this year with “The Lion King Jr.” The middle school had been preparing to put on “The Lion King” right before COVID-lockdowns canceled the performances in 2020. So the teachers already knew the play. Some of the students, who were now in high school, could even play the same roles in which they originally had been cast.
Rehearsals had gotten off to a good start in January. Then the train derailed. For many of the students, the problems with the production had become symbolic of whether or not they would have a normal spring season of school activities. Would people outside of town even be willing to travel to East Palestine — where fears still persist about whether there are health risks — to come and see the show?
Now, with just hours until the dress rehearsal, Mollenkopf worried that, if they couldn’t fix the sound system, the production might become yet another disruption for a group of kids whose high school careers have been marked by instability.
An ill-fated show
Mollenkopf and Randolph had, at one point, considered not doing the show at all. The derailment caused them to miss two weeks of key rehearsal time when they were supposed to begin deciding where all of the characters would stand on stage. And then they were forced out of the auditorium by groups who wanted the space for town meetings to deal with the aftermath of the train derailment, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Is this in the best interest of the students to continue to push to have them here, to know that it’s probably going to be a stretch?” Randolph said they discussed.
With just three weeks until production night, they discovered a paperwork mixup with their costume rental company. “So we had the whole cast outfitted, only to find out that we had nothing,” Randolph said.
But the teachers had seen how “Newsies” had pulled the school together after the pandemic. They decided to push forward with the production. They worked with five different schools and drama companies to stitch together costumes for everybody.
“The kids need it, we need it. It’s a good distraction from the crazy,” Randolph said they decided.
They needed the distraction in part because the derailment had been traumatic for some students.
Cienik was hanging out with her friend and fellow cast member Jack Cope, who plays the part of Scar, on the evening of Feb. 3 when Cope started receiving messages on Snapchat with images that appeared to show the entire town on the verge of catching fire. They began checking in with friends and realized that Lia McTrustry, a junior who plays Nala, wasn’t answering her phone and lived only a few blocks from the burning train.
After getting permission to leave, they drove to pick up McTrustry and drive to safety in a nearby town. On the way out, McTrustry looked behind her. Her jaw dropped because the flames and smoke looked menacing, like a scene from a movie.
They spent the night at a family member’s house in a nearby town, alternatively playing a fun card game to distract themselves and breaking down in tears because they didn’t know what would happen to their families. Both of them have parents who work for the school district’s transportation department, and their parents had to stay in town to help other residents evacuate.
“I was terrified. It was horrible,” McTrustry said. She was worried about what would happen to her dog Nicholas and guinea pig Penelope that she left behind.
No one in town had a severe injury the night of the accident. But the train company had trouble controlling the fire, and a couple of days later the decision was made to burn off five cars of vinyl chloride to prevent one of the cars from exploding and propelling explosive shrapnel for up to a mile.
That meant that many of the kids in the play had to stay with relatives or move into hotels. For the time being, rehearsals came to an abrupt stop.
Exile and return
Sophomores Alexzander Mead and Keller Bupp were cast as the comedic duo, Pumbaa and Simon, the goofy warthog and wisecracking meerkat. Their teachers and fellow cast members said that the key to their success in the play is that the way they act on stage is just an extension of the playful way they act together in real life: They’re best friends and embody the ethos of the song they sing in the play, “Hakuna Matata” — which means no worries, no matter what happens, for the rest of their days.
But since the train derailment, Bupp said their free-wheeling friendship has been challenged. They both live close to the accident site, and Mead has started getting frequent nosebleeds, while his dad has gotten a “nasty” rash that covers his back with little pustules. He doesn’t notice a smell in the air anymore, but he said the stream water still smells metallic.
Bupp evacuated after the derailment and hasn’t returned to school. His eyes were getting irritated inside his house, and his parents don’t want him to return until it’s clear that everything is safe. Although both government and Norfolk Southern officials say tests of the air and water near the derailment site show both are safe, some residents continue to complain about health conditions. About 40 students have moved out of the district since the derailment, according to attendance records. About 100 more, like Bupp, were choosing to do the rest of their work online.
Bupp’s parents let him come to play rehearsals because he has such a large part. But he knows that the play will be one of his last chances to see many of his friends in school for the foreseeable future.
“I’m sad that I’m one of the only people who’s online, but I understand the whole safety aspect of it,” he said. “Our house still smells horrible.”
The derailment disrupted the small town, with an influx of first responders and then environmental remediation workers, visits from national political figures and a swarm of news reporters. But it also brought opportunities they otherwise never would’ve had. Randolph’s journalism students attended real press conferences and arranged to interview the governor of Ohio and the federal EPA secretary, in some cases before the professional media did.
Randolph said the kids peppered the governor with short-term questions: Would they be able to have spring sports? (A girls’ basketball team from a neighboring town declined to come to East Palestine for a game because the players’ parents were afraid of sending their children to the town.)
Mead said the EPA has also promised to send test equipment for students in his science class so they can see for themselves whether there are chemicals in the school.
“It’s neat to test that, but I would never want it in the first place because I don’t want those [chemicals] near my school. I don’t want them near me at all,” he said. “I just want to go back to being the little local town [East Palestine].”
The show must go on
After video-chatting with a sound engineer, DiCesare finally got the sound system back up and running by lunchtime. The drama students returned later that evening for rehearsal and began putting on their costumes and makeup and singing some warm-up songs in the band room.
Cienik was smudging black around the eyes of the hyenas, each in a distinctive pattern that fit the character. She had spent her idle time at home during COVID-19 teaching herself to apply stage makeup by watching YouTube videos, and she had since become the head of makeup for the play.
Bupp showed up just 20 minutes before the dress rehearsal was supposed to start because he was coming from tennis practice in a neighboring town; practices had been moved to a park where toxic remediation wasn’t taking place. And then as everyone was getting into their places, the cast came to the stage to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mrs. Randolph.
As they scurried back to their places behind the curtains and the auditorium became nearly silent, Mollenkopf whispered: “The lighting guy isn’t feeling very good. So I have a replacement. We’ll see how this goes.”
They got through the dress rehearsal without any major stops and then made additional adjustments for opening night. The play went on as planned, with three performances on March 17-19. Even Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, came to a performance with his wife and said he admired the hard work and enthusiasm of the cast.
“One of the things that our students should be commended for is their ability to bounce back from things and remain resilient,” Mollenkopf said. “And we’re really proud of them for that.”
But their feelings about the play had changed. Instead of “Hakuna Matata,” Bupp said, the song that seemed most applicable to his situation now is a song by Nala called “Shadowland.” She sings about how the lion’s homeland has been ruined by overhunting.
“The river’s dry. The ground has broken,” Nala sings. “So I must go. Now I must go.”
Bupp’s family is waiting for more definitive proof that the town is safe before he can return to school. “It’s just not a very livable place anymore,” he said.
McTrustry has a different take. She believes Simba’s journey in the play best embodies the town’s current predicament. Simba is forced to leave the lion’s prideland after his father dies in a tragic event — like the students who were forced to leave town after the derailment.
But then Simba returns home, McTrustry, said, and the question he faces is: “If I don’t fight for it, who will?”