Young Actor Reaches for the Stars
The curtain falls for the last time this weekend on Albuquerque Little Theatre’s production of “Hairspray,” but for one cast member the show, his show, must go on.
It always has.
Brandon Ross – Brandon Wenze-Bullard in your theater programs – is a 19-year-old Moriarty High School student with an energetic charm and a smile like the first day of summer. He made his musical debut in “Hairspray” as Stooie, one of the record shop kids.
Not a big role as roles go in this frolicsome musical about dancing, integration and high, high hair. But for Ross it’s a big step toward his dreams of stardom and away from a dark childhood where dreams and stars were far too scarce.
That’s not being melodramatic. For the first dozen years of his life, Ross bounced in and out of foster homes, back and forth from shelters to relatives’ homes to friends’ couches to, on occasion, the family car while his mother careened in and out of alcoholism and illness.
Ross was 12 when his mother’s tormented journey ended.
“I didn’t know she had overdosed on heroin until recently,” he says. “They told me they found her in the bathtub. As I heard it, that was her first time taking heroin. It stopped her heart. It was automatic.”
Through the turbulence of those years, Ross remembers losing himself in borrowed Disney DVDs like “The Lion King,” his favorite.
“I loved watching those movies,” he says. “I’d go outside and act them out afterward.”
He remembers singing on Sundays at the various churches his foster mothers took him to, remembers dancing at vacation Bible camps.
It’s what got him by.
After his mother’s death, Ross was adopted into a family he says he struggled to fit into.
“That’s when it became strong,” he says. “I wanted to sing, to dance, to act, to write. I wanted to do something creative, something I couldn’t do where I was. It felt like if I stayed I wouldn’t be where I needed to be.”
Ross was 18 in the spring of 2010 when he crawled out his bedroom window in search of the stars. And himself.
“Turns out I didn’t quite think things through,” he says, chuckling.
With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Ross says, he wandered the streets of Albuquerque for a month, begging for money outside a McDonald’s near the Coronado Mall and sleeping in a box behind a video store.
When he had enough money, he’d buy a burger and a ticket to a dollar movie theater.
Once again, movies were his escape.
Then he met Debra Stewart, the woman he now calls Mom.
“She was with one of her friends at the McDonald’s and they were looking at me,” he says. “I asked her for a couple of bucks. She asked me where I was going. I told her I had nowhere to go. So she asked me if I wanted to stay at her place. It was kind of crazy. I didn’t know her, and she didn’t know me.”
It turned out to be a pretty good fit.
“We’re not adopted, not biologically related,” he says. “But I call them family just the same.”
Last August, Ross, Stewart, her partner Fred Deerman and the 11 other children and young adults in their patchwork family moved to Moriarty. That was fine until February, when Ross decided to audition for “Hairspray.”
Ross says he knew he had to do it. Luckily for him, his new family knew that, too.
For six weeks and sometimes as many as five nights a week, Stewart, Deerman or older sister Starr made the 84-mile round trip with Ross to and from rehearsals.
“Being in theater is a challenge. It’s a lot of time, a big commitment,” director Henry Avery says. “That was true especially for Brandon and his family. But once he got involved, he really wanted it.”
Days before the show, though, Ross started missing rehearsals. Gas was just too expensive, he says.
But the young man who once had no one and nothing but a smile and a dream had found more in “Hairspray” than a role to play – he found friends.
“Cast members started stepping up and letting Brandon stay with them so he wouldn’t have to worry about transportation,” says fellow cast member Kristi Lawrence, who plays Prudy Pingleton. “It has really been phenomenal.”
Ross’ favorite part of the show is when the record shop kids and others get serious and sing a rousing civil rights-themed song.
“There’s a light in the darkness though the night is black as my skin,” the song begins. “There’s a light burning bright, showing me the way. But I know where I’ve been.”
“I can relate to that song, not just because I’m African-American,” he says. “It’s about not giving up, about not stopping or you’re never going to go anywhere.”
Ross isn’t about to stop now, he says. The stars are out there, just as he imagined, brilliant and strong and high above the darkness.
One day, he will be one of them.
If you go: “Hairspray” runs tonight through Sunday. Call 242-4750 or visit www. albuquerquelittletheatre.org.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal
Photo Credit – COURTESY CAROLYN AND JOHN HOGAN
Cutline – Brandon Ross, listed by his adopted name Brandon Wenze-Bullard in the theater programs, sings with the cast of “Hairspray.”