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.