The teenagers sulked around on stage, toeing scraps of trash with their dirty Converse sneakers. They ran their fingers through greasy hair and rolled their eyes with exaggerated sighs. They wore ripped T-shirts and leather jackets and had permanent-marker “tattoos” up and down their arms.
On a Wednesday night in a sold-out theater in downtown Minneapolis, the group of high schoolers just looked like angsty teenagers. But then came the crescendo of the guitar and the drums. The teens broke out in song, more screaming than singing, belting out the opening track of “American Idiot,” the musical adaptation of the punk rock band Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name.
As the cast stomped around, dropping curse words and raising their middle fingers, a mom in the audience turned to her husband and raised her eyebrows.
The show’s message is one of rebellion, and that’s what the Try And Stop Us (TASU) Theatre Company is all about. Now in its fourth year, the company produces an annual musical performed, directed and produced entirely by high school students — no adults.
TASU was founded in 2013 when two seniors from Southwest High School in Minneapolis wanted to put on “Spring Awakening” as part of a student-directed theater program. Because of the sexual themes of the musical, Southwest said it couldn’t allow it.
Meredith Casey and Abby Hilden were not deterred. They wrote to Musical Theatre International in New York and coughed up more than $1,000 for the show’s rights. Then they held auditions, raised money, located a performance space, found lighting and sound equipment and co-directed the team of cast members and musicians.
“It was a crazy adventure,” Casey said by phone from Michigan, where she is performing “Hairspray” with a repertory theater company.
“We thought it would just be the one show and that would be the end of it,” she said. “It was never our expectation to start a company that continued and grew after us.”
Each year a new group of teens has stepped up to keep the company performing shows that wouldn’t be allowed on a high school stage, Casey said. The cast now includes teens of color and students from several high schools, and the company hopes to see the diversity continue to grow.
Several recently graduated members of the cast and orchestra are going off to premier musical theater and performing arts schools. Casey said she’s been impressed by the TASU talent pool.
“I think there are just so many young artists still developing a voice, looking for a vessel that will get someone to listen to them,” she said.
No adult input means the freedom to have opinions, make mistakes and push boundaries, she said. That’s what fueled the cast of “American Idiot,” said Anna Gregory, a recent graduate of Washburn High School.
Gregory plays St. Jimmy, a drug dealer who becomes a manifestation of chaos and desire. Jimmy is a presence on stage as characters struggle with teen pregnancy, drug use and going off to war.
“As young people watching the news and hearing about the election, learning about bigotry and hate, we are frustrated,” Gregory said. “Screaming about it on stage offers an outlet, a therapy.”
The original Green Day album was born out of frustration with the U.S. government, the Iraq war and the apathy of young people.
In the director’s statement printed in the program, three co-directors wrote that they appreciated the show’s “bold commentary” and felt that performing it called for a “certain degree of recklessness that only young people can deliver.”
The set’s wooden platforms were covered in graffiti that included a few choice — and unprintable — words directed at Donald Trump.
Gregory’s mother, Deb Gregory, said the show was a good fit for high schoolers despite the heavy themes and strong language. Though she said her daughter likes Beyoncé’s music more than Green Day’s and probably won’t be rocking the black-lace-bra and leather-jacket look outside of her role, Gregory said she knows that the show’s themes are relatable for Anna.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard our teenagers swear,” she said. “This isn’t the first time they’ve heard about drugs. They are exposed to these issues — this is where the kids are at and it’s a healthy way to embrace it.”
“American Idiot” performances will continue through Saturday at 7 p.m. at the JSB TEKBOX, Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S. Tickets can be purchased online for $12 or at the door for $10 (adults) and $7 (students).