His laugh is infectious, his mind is brilliant, and he's the proud new owner of an honorable mention for Excellence in Theatre by Carnegie Mellon University and the Tony Awards.
Isiah Harper is not your average educator. In his 15 years at Northside High School, he's built a powerhouse program and touched the lives of thousands of students he continues to pour into long after graduation.
In 2018, Harper directed a life-changing production and earned a Tony nomination for his work in Theatre Education. The past year has been good to him, but if you ask him, he'll tell you that it's all been a series of blessings from God- a chapter he would have walked away from entirely if it'd been initially up to him.
We sat down with Harper at Iron Bank Coffee to discuss the events that led up to such a tremendous year for him, and what he's learned along the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All photos courtesy of Isiah Harper.
Q: Let's talk about doing a production of Rent, with high schoolers, in our very conservative Southern town. It went so well, but what made you decide to do the show in the first place?
A: I'll be honest. I looked everywhere not to do that show. I was the most afraid of that show. I didn't want to do it at all.
Q: You're kidding. Then why tackle it?
A few years back, we did Jesus Christ Superstar. It was amazing, and I loved it. It was so much fun. But during the production rehearsal process, I had kids pulled out and people were going to the school board. I had to write a letter to James Wilson, who is one of the Region chiefs now. I wrote the letter to get his permission. His response was, "I trust you."
Then, I went to our accompanist who plays a lot for us. I called her and told her what I was planning to do, and asked if she'd be a part of it. "I trust that you know what you're going to do here, and I know who you are," she said. "Isiah, when people balk at something this much, it's often because it needs to be done." So we did the show, and it turned into such a wonderful experience for everyone involved- including me.
Q: Yes. People loved it. But that wasn't your last controversial show, right? What happened next?
A: The following year we did Joan of Arc. Then we followed it with Rock of Ages which is another controversial show. I got called into the office over that one, because there is a gay romance between two minor characters. They asked me, "How are you going to handle this onstage?" I told them, "It's not going to be 'gay-aww' it's going to be 'gay- ha ha!' We are handling it with care and I promise that it'll be fine. But to ease your mind, please come into a rehearsal or two and see if it's okay."
They sat in on one rehearsal and said, "You're right. It's great and handled so well."
Q: So you handled it in a healthy way?
A: Yes. It was done in a very healthy way that wasn't in your face. The kids, parents, and administration ended up loving the show.
Q: What was it like trying to figure out how to follow Rock of Ages?
A: Well, my students and I were all talking and I asked them, "How are we going to top Rock of Ages? It was a huge success. What could we follow this with next year?"
One of my kids yelled out, "Rent!"
I think I choked.
I laughed so hard, and then when I could breathe again I said, "Oh, you're trying to get me fired, thank you."
And she said, "No seriously. You have the cast. You can do it. You have the perfect cast."
I told them that if there was a high school version, I'd consider it. I thought I was safe from that actually being a thing. But guess what? I looked into it, and sure enough... (laughing) Yay. There's a high school version.
Q: (Laughing) Yay. What did they say?
A: Well, I told the kids the rules. I sat them all down and said, "Here's the deal. In order for us to do this show, I have to have three things: Parent and faculty buy-in, administrative support, and I have to tell the superintendent."
I called those my three fleeces. 'Cause I'm gonna put that fleece out there. This was not my first time managing a controversial show.
Q: I see. But you were hoping and assuming you'd get blocked somewhere in the process, right?
A: Right. At one point, I asked the kids for their backup show. They said, "Grease!"
"I'd rather die!" I said.
So, I went to the faculty and said, "Grease or Rent?" They were like, "Dear God, not Grease!"
Q: Isn't that funny? Were you surprised by that reaction?
A: I really was. I mean, there was a strong Grease following, don't get me wrong. But when the president of the Prayer Club says, "You know Isiah, if anyone can do Rent, you can. You have the cast, go for it!" At that point, I got suspicious that God had some plans for me I wasn't too sure about.
We had faculty buy-in. So then, I went to the parents.
Q: I have heard so many parents say such wonderful things about you. You have quite the reputation for being an incredible educator, and an army of parents who support you.
A: My kids' parents are so wonderful. The thing is, parents have to get to the point where they trust you will never let anything happen to their kid. Once they know that, and they know you would do anything for them, they'll support you to the ends of the earth.
They know I literally bailed a kid out of jail once.
A: He stole the internet.
A: You heard me. He stole the internet. From Walmart of all places. This kid tried to steal a router.
I was his dance instructor. This kid was kind of a thug, but he had the most incredible extension. So I got him into ballet.
Q: Wait. You teach ballet?
A: Yes. And I have a lot of strong young men in that class who are wonderful dancers because I teach them that you can dance and still be masculine. It is a thing, and I want them to learn that.
Q: So your ballet student stole the internet.
Yes. I get a call from the Columbus Police Department and the officer says, "Can you tell me how you know so and so?" And I said, "I'm his ballet and theatre instructor."
After a pause, the officer was like, "This kid wasn't lying?!"
"No, I really teach him ballet."
"Well, we can't get his father to come down here and get him, and he asked us to call you. We told him after that lie, if it actually was true and you were in fact his ballet instructor, we'd let him go."
Q: So they didn't believe him?
A: Girl, nobody would have believed this kid was in ballet. I don't blame the officers for thinking he was lying. I would have taken the bet, too.
Apparently, this student was in the Walmart holding cell because he had stolen a router. That fool tried to steal the internet.
So I went and picked him up and we had a discussion. Ballet ended up getting him cleaned up. He straightened his life out, and I'm very proud of him. He has a successful career now, and he and his wife go to the ballet often. I'm happy he learned to appreciate it, and glad he didn't end up in jail.
Parents have to get to the point where they trust you will never let anything happen to their kid. Once they know that, and they know you would do anything for them, they'll support you to the ends of the earth.
Q: What an incredible story.
A: Well, all of that to say, my kids' parents know that there is little I wouldn't do for my students. That's why they didn't question us doing Rent. They were all in from the beginning.
Q: What about your administration?
So the last fleece had to be tested, right? I went to my administrator. I said, "We've gone to the parents and the student body and the faculty, and they all support this show. Let me tell you what it is... This is a musical about AIDS, and gay people... oh, and drugs. There is a drag queen, a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and a straight couple. Oh, and almost everyone dies."
Q: (laughing) What did he say?
A: Well, you have to understand that my administrator is Pentecostal. And again, I still did not want to do this show. So I kind of expected and prayed for a negative reaction after that pitch.
But do you know what he said?
"Okay, well, is there a song from the show I know?"
Q: Seriously?! That was his response? Did you break out in song?
A: Yes. (laughing) I busted out with "Five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes..."
He said, "Oh, I like that song. Go for it."
I said, "You do realize I'm talking about Rent, right?"
Then, I sent him the script, asked him to watch the movie, and made sure he'd heard all of the music. A few days later, he still gave the go ahead.
Q: Wow. What about the superintendent?
Our superintendent, Dr. Lewis, and his wife Karen met with me and said, "If you have your faculty, administration, and your parents, you have our support. Do it."
So all three of my fleeces didn't get blocked. And that's how I ended up doing Rent in our city last year.
Q: How did getting the approval make you feel?
A: Well, it was a powerful lesson honestly. I learned that sometimes, the Lord won't let you fight your own blessing - especially if it's meant to also be a blessing to many others. Rent ended up being such an incredible blessing to so many people. It was more than a show for us.
Q: In what way?
A: One of our administrators had a sister who died of HIV-AIDS. She told me about this project called the NAMES Project. The NAMES Project is an AIDS awareness organization that promotes the creation of the AIDS Quilt- a quilt featuring the names of many victims who have lost their lives to AIDS.
We decided to raise local awareness about the disease by creating our own quilts to feature at the production. Columbus actually already had a quilt, so we found it and had it on display.
Then, we quilted a whole other quilt with angel wings on it and we asked people to write the names of loved ones they had lost to AIDS on it. Through this, we were able to continue the NAMES Project locally and raise awareness about the disease.
The Lord won't let you fight your own blessing - especially if it's meant to also be a blessing to many others.
Q: That is beautiful. I bet you heard some incredible stories.
A: I was blown away by the beauty and the blessing God brought about through the quilts. One of the sweetest moments involved one of my students from our production crew. He had an uncle who died of AIDS, and he wrote down his name, but didn't say anything specific about who it was. Then, a woman came to the show and wrote his name down as well. She saw that it was written somewhere else, and asked, "Who gave you this name? Who remembered by brother?" So I went back and found out who it was, and she said, "I don't know this person." It turns out, they'd never met before, but were able to connect on Facebook and remember that person together. It was powerful. We heard a lot of stories like this. A lot of people in our generation and the generation older than us found a great measure of healing through this art project we used to raise awareness about the show's message and the terrible disease that is AIDS.
Q: Where are the quilts now?
A: They are on display at Forgiving Heart Church and will soon be donated to the homeless shelter here in town. We hope they provide warmth and continued blessings to those who receive them.
Q: That is amazing. And your kids quilted them?