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East Palestine students put on a play while the city recovers from a train derailment

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

East Palestine, Ohio, is still recovering from a train derailment in February that resulted in a toxic chemical spill. WESA's Oliver Morrison brings us the story of a school play that's been a welcome diversion from recent problems in the small, rural town.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: There's always lots of excitement for the spring play put on by students in East Palestine. This year, the middle and high school were joining together to put on "The Lion King." But on the morning of the dress rehearsal, the show ran into some technical difficulties.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's got to be a cable issue. I mean, I've checked every freaking thing.

MORRISON: Senior Laredo Cienik, the lead hyena in this production, stopped by to investigate.

LAREDO CIENIK: Our sound system's not working. I'm like, day before the play, sound system's is not working - what are we going to do if the sound doesn't work at all?

MORRISON: This was just the latest of many setbacks. The school had tried to put on the play in 2020, when the COVID pandemic hit. After a long hiatus, the drama teachers decided to resurrect the play this year. Lia McTrustry was cast as Nala, the lead lioness, when she was in eighth grade in 2020. This year, she was cast in the same role as a junior. Lia says her voice has changed, and she's had to adapt.

LIA MCTRUSTRY: Some of the songs are very pretty, and I have a very jazz voice. One of the examples is from "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." I have to do a very pretty and (singing) if he feels the love tonight in the way I do.

MORRISON: Exactly six weeks before opening night, Laredo was hanging out with a friend, and they looked at his phone.

LAREDO: He sees this fire coming up from - like, on Snapchat and everything, everybody's like, our town's on fire. Our town's on fire. Oh, my God, this looks like the apocalypse.

MORRISON: Laredo began checking in on her friends. She realized that Lia hadn't been responding to messages.

LAREDO: And I was like, we got to get Lia out of her house because she's maybe three blocks from this derailment.

MORRISON: They left town and spent the night at a relative's house trying to keep their mind off of what was happening. Here's Lia.

LIA: Oh, I was terrified. It was horrible. I was away from my family.

MORRISON: When the decision was made to burn off five cars of vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical, many of the kids had to evacuate. Keller Bupp was one of those kids. He plays the comic relief in the play. His main song, "Hakuna Matata," fits his personality, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLER BUPP: (As Timon, singing) It means no worries for the rest of your days.

MORRISON: But the song hasn't quite had the same ring it once did. Keller's parents don't think it's safe for him in East Palestine anymore, so he's one of around 100 students who are learning online now.

KELLER: There's a song called "Shadowland."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIA: (As Nala, singing) This was our home.

KELLER: And it reminds me a lot of the town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIA: (As Nala, singing) The river's dry.

KELLER: Nala's singing about the ground being dry, and the water's gone, and it's just not, like, a very livable place anymore.

MORRISON: Lia, who sings that song, has a different take. The story is about a lion who is driven away from his home just like they were evacuated. Then Lia says the character she plays, Nala, asks the lion to return home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIA: (As Nala) Everything's destroyed. There's no food, no water. If we go back together, we can do something about it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Simba) I can't go back.

LIA: (As Nala) Why?

It's kind of like if I don't fight for it, who will?

MORRISON: If they want to bring the town back to the way it used to be, Lia is saying, they have to come back home and fight for it. And for many kids, that means moving forward, showing up at school, going to tennis practice and putting on the school play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character, singing) From the day we arrive on the planet...

MORRISON: For NPR News, I'm Oliver Morrison in East Palestine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Oliver Morrison