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‘Teenarama’ was a dance show for D.C.’s Black teens. Now it’s a musical.

Phoenix Miranda, left, Preston Jones, Jordan Embrack, Jonathan Hobbs, Jordan Jones, Leander Jackson Jr. and Tashyanna Simpson. The new musical -- with book and lyrics by Jiiko Ozimba and music by Tony Berry and Peter Chatmon -- was inspired by Beverly Lindsay-Johnson's 2007 documentary on a teen dance show broadcast on Washington's WOOK-TV from 1963 to 1970.
Phoenix Miranda, left, Preston Jones, Jordan Embrack, Jonathan Hobbs, Jordan Jones, Leander Jackson Jr. and Tashyanna Simpson. The new musical -- with book and lyrics by Jiiko Ozimba and music by Tony Berry and Peter Chatmon -- was inspired by Beverly Lindsay-Johnson's 2007 documentary on a teen dance show broadcast on Washington's WOOK-TV from 1963 to 1970. (Jiiko Ozimba)
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When the musical “Hairspray” came out, filmmaker Beverly Lindsay-Johnson was deep into research on D.C.’s homegrown African American TV dance show, “Teenarama.” Friends started bombarding her with the suggestion that she should turn her subject into a musical or play — you know, like “Hairspray.”

“I don’t know anything about plays or musicals,” said Lindsay-Johnson. “I said, ‘Let me just get through this.’ ”

She did: the 2007 documentary “Dance Party: The Teenarama Story,” about the “American Bandstand”-style show that ran on WOOK-TV from 1963 to 1970. While D.C.’s “Milt Grant Show” had African American dancers only on Tuesdays, “Teenarama” featured Black teens six afternoons a week.

Then in 2015, Lindsay-Johnson met someone who does know about plays and musicals: Jiiko Ozimba.

“Being from D.C., I was amazed that something this significant happened and I’d never heard of it,” said Ozimba.

That was “Teenarama,” a pioneering show that was not without backstage drama. That included outcry from members of the Black community who feared it would strike viewers as a minstrel show and feuds between some of the regular dancers on the program.

The result — after six years and multiple drafts — is “Dancing On the Air: The Teenarama Story.” Eleven original songs — with lyrics by Ozimba and music by Tony Berry and Peter Chatmon — adorn a story that hews closely to the real history of “Teenarama.”

The Broadway musical “Hairspray” was inspired by the effort to integrate Baltimore’s “Buddy Deane Show.”

Said Ozimba: “You see ‘Hairspray,’ but you don’t hear the other side of it. You don’t hear from African Americans. You don’t hear what was going on with us at that time.”

She and Lindsay-Johnson felt Black dancers of the 1960s deserved to be more than characters in another community’s story.

To research the show, Ozimba met with dancers who once lined up outside the WOOK studios near Fort Totten. A focus group at the R.I.S.E. Center in Southeast brought out regulars, who spoke of being relegated to what was known as “Black Tuesday” on “The Milt Grant Show.” Sings one character in the musical: “It sounds like a holiday . . . Instead of once a year, it’s every time I appear.”

Ozimba heard about the colorism on the show, too, with some lighter-skinned participants shunning darker ones.

“Each person I talked to made some reference to it,” said Ozimba. It prompted her to write the song “Light Bright.”

Ozimba and Lindsay-Johnson were working toward a live performance but the pandemic forced them to change course. Last spring, they held auditions over Zoom. They began rehearsals that way, too, with choreographer Carmen White and hand-dance expert Lawrence “Brad” Bradford demonstrating for the young cast.

“They’re in their little squares, in their socks, at work. Some were practicing outside,” Ozimba said. “They finally got together in May at Joe’s Movement Emporium and these young people grabbed hands and started dancing. I could not believe it.”

Cast members recorded the songs at Hungry Boi Studio in Fort Washington. Over four days in August, they videotaped the show, lip-syncing to the vocals, in the black box theater at the Arc in Southeast.

There are some standouts in the cast, including University of Maryland student Jordan Embrack. She plays Lita, a dancer crazy over Jimmy Funk, a character based on James Brown. Brown was among the stars who would drop by WOOK before shows at the Howard Theatre. (Ozimba, 49, understands Lita’s swooning sentiment. “I was in love with New Edition,” she said.)

Lindsay-Johnson is a serious student of D.C.’s music history, producing documentaries on the girls vocal group the Jewels and Washington soul singer Billy “Fat Boy” Stewart. She wanted the “Teenarama” musical to be accurate to the time and the place.

“Like with the shoes,” she said.

Girls in D.C. in the 1960s had to have a certain type of flat sold by I. Miller. Because they cost the not-inconsiderable-at-the-time sum of $19, everyone called them “19s.”

When the shoe was reintroduced a decade ago, Washington women of a certain age snapped them up. That included Margie Clarke of the Jewels, who died in 2019 at age 78. Her daughter donated 16 pairs of 19s to “Dancing On the Air” for the actresses to use.

Said Ozimba: “These girls were so honored to wear these shoes.”

Talk about following in the footsteps of your elders.

“Dancing On the Air: The Teenarama Story” is streaming on Vimeo pay-per-view from Nov. 24 to Dec. 10. The cost to stream it is $25. For information, visit dancingontheairmusical.com.

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Twitter: @johnkelly

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