OAKLAND -- Long known for its excellence, the Skyline High School Drama Department tackles Jonathan Larson's rock musical "Rent" for its spring production.

Based on Puccini's "La Boheme," this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner tells of a group of young artists and musicians struggling to survive in New York's Lower East Side. Tuberculosis, the plague of Puccini's opera, is replaced by HIV/AIDS in "Rent."

"I've wanted to do this musical for a while but needed to wait for the right time and the right talent," said drama teacher/director Jan Hunter. "It's the 20th anniversary of the show, so that seemed a good time and I had confidence that my advanced students had the right attitude about the subject matter and the talent to pull it off."

Still, Hunter realized that her students needed more than talent to pull off this graphic story of drug use, disease, friendship and love told through touching yet heart-wrenching songs.

"I shared with them the story of my friend, Larry McGowan. He was the costumer on a show I was doing in Houston in the early '80s," Hunter said. "The AIDS epidemic was just beginning, and he was first diagnosed with pneumonia before other horrible symptoms took over. The doctors just didn't know what was going on. After he passed, he was listed as the sixth victim of AIDS."

Hunter's story made the show and the dilemmas of the characters real for her 44 actors. She began study sessions with her cast and reached out to Bay Area HIV/AIDS support groups.


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"The kids were so affected by what they learned and soon they all had stories to share," Hunter said. "Excessive drug use, alcoholism, running away from home -- my students all know someone who has been affected by these things. In fact, one cast member -- a 19-year-old senior -- has a very troubled past. He's never done a play before but has so much natural talent. I believe his life has been saved because of this show. He's now part of our theater family and a constant reminder to me of just how important theater is."

Another surprise talent came in the form of Skyline science teacher Michelle Shankar. A medical student, Shankar is part of Teach for America, a program that pays a portion of college costs in exchange for students teaching two years in inner-city schools.

"Her science background was just what we needed, but then I found out she had studied voice and been in musicals. She's incredibly talented and became our vocal coach," Hunter said.

But Hunter hopes to do more than present a finely tuned performance. She also wants to educate her audience. "When my friend died of AIDS in the '80s, people were afraid they could contract it by just using the same bathroom as someone with the disease," she said.

Hunter acknowledges that we've come along way since then -- maybe too far, as many young people don't know much about the disease.

"But statistics show that young black women, ages 13-25, are now the group most at risk for contracting HIV," she explained. "We need to fight the ignorance and become educated as individuals, a community and a nation."

To that end, Hunter will have brochures on the disease available in the lobby as well as free HIV testing and counseling.

"I chose 'Rent' because I wanted to do something that would not only entertain with good music and dancing but that would also educate and be a service to the community," Hunter said. "Hopefully, we've done that with this show."

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Rent"
WHEN: April 10-13 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee also on April 13.
WHERE: The Rawley T. Farnsworth Theatre, 12250 Skyline Blvd.
TICKETS: $12 for adults, $10 for students and $8 for seniors and children 10 and younger. Call 510-879-3060, ext. 250, for advance tickets.