On the Saturday night Hurricane Katrina had been forecast to hit her community outside New Orleans, Rebecca Hollingsworth was slated to star in the lead role in her high school production of "Little Shop of Horrors."
"Early Saturday morning, my daddy [who was at his home 40 miles away] called and said, 'You've got to get out of New Orleans,' " Rebecca said. "I said, 'There's no hurricane coming -- I've got a show tonight.' "
The show did not go on. Instead, Rebecca found herself in the middle of a real-life drama: fleeing to Florida with her friend's family; worrying about her mother, who stayed behind; and later learning that she was without a home and a school.
But now Rebecca joins 31 other students from the Gulf Coast who have transferred to public schools in the District. Last week, she took a major step in restoring a semblance of her old life: With her own performing arts high school severely damaged by water, the 17-year-old senior has enrolled at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, where she is resuming her studies in acting and singing.
At her old school, "kids would walk down the hall singing. When I got here and saw how the students here were singing and dancing in the hallway, I said, 'This is where I want to come,' " said Rebecca, who lives with an aunt in Burleith.
"The principal dropped everything she was doing [on the first day] and was so informative and helpful," she added.
"All the students treated me like they already knew me."
Even before Rebecca arrived, said Principal Mitzi Yates, Ellington students and teachers were riveted to news coverage of the hurricane, discussing some of the broader issues associated with the disaster: the gap between the haves and have-nots, what rebuilding New Orleans would entail and even global warming.
Students had begun raising money for an alumna from the Class of 1988 whose home in New Orleans was wrecked and were collecting toiletries for other survivors along the Gulf Coast. They also were considering staging a mini-production for evacuees at the D.C. Armory.
"Artists are on the brink of prominent issues today -- we're a human family. We have a lot here, and we wanted to give something back," said Elle Riley-Condit, 16, a junior theater major who organized the efforts.
Rebecca, Elle added, gave them a tangible focal point for their concern. Students recruited Rebecca as a spokeswoman for their efforts. "She's been through so much. A couple of days after she lost everything she had, she's getting into life here as best she can," Elle said.
Flipping through photos of her Louisiana friends taken just days before the hurricane hit, Rebecca acknowledges that she misses her old life in Jefferson Parish. Her mother has since moved from their home in Metairie, outside New Orleans, to Memphis. Her friends have scattered, mainly throughout the South.
Casualties of the hurricane are the townhouse where she and her mother lived; her school, Jefferson Academy of Fine Arts; and her two-year relationship with her boyfriend. The two broke up when she moved to Washington.
Through it all, she has maintained her bubbly personality. She joked about how she had to get five immunization shots when she enrolled because her health records could not be located, and how embarrassed she was that the bandages covering the shots had pictures of Arthur, the children's cartoon character, on them.
She also poked fun at herself about her inability to figure out her new block schedule, in which classes rotate every day. She said that early this week she sat in a class practicing her Spanish skills for five minutes before discovering that it was a French class.
Hanging out in a backstage area during lunch hour with several new friends, Rebecca described the differences between her old and new schools. Her old school was 60 percent white and 40 percent black. Ellington, she said, is about 80 percent black.
With Rebecca, "I'm no longer the only white girl," joked 17-year-old senior Hope Rollins, another theater major. The group of about five black and white students laughed.
Tattiana Aqeel-de Oliveira, also 17 and a theater major, said she hit it off immediately with Rebecca. "I was impressed because we had just met and she was opening up about New Orleans and everything she had gone through," said Tattiana, who was wearing a belt styled like a piano keyboard.
"I'm not a shy girl," Rebecca said.
"Oh, I noticed that!" Tattiana said.
Despite having to cut short her performance in the school play back home, Rebecca said for now she is happy to do behind-the-scenes work in some upcoming productions at Ellington.
Already, though, some at the school say she has great potential as an actress. Ken Johnson, chairman of the theater department at Ellington, said he was moved by Rebecca's audition performance of Emily from the Thornton Wilder play "Our Town."
"The character dies in childhood but is given a chance to go back home and see her parents and siblings," Johnson said.
"Rebecca broke down when she did it. She informed me she hadn't seen her mother in two weeks," Johnson said.