WHO: The students of the Sam Houston State University Department of Theatre & Musical Theatre, led by assistant professor and coordinator of theater studies Patrick Pearson.

WHAT: In conjunction with a musical performance of The Prom this spring, the Sam Houston State theater department hosted an actual prom the evening after the musical’s closing night and invited the whole school.

WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Students who were seniors in high school four years ago, when COVID-19 shut down the world, got a chance to enjoy the prom they never had. Plus, the organizers of the event turned it into a fundraiser for LGBTQ students in Houston who might not feel welcome at their own high schools.

In February 2020, Leah Bernal purchased her dream dress for prom. It was scarlet, with off-the-shoulder sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. “You know the red dress in Pretty Woman, where she wears the long white gloves? That was my goal,” Bernal said. As a senior at Bryan High School, she’d been looking forward to the grandeur of that ubiquitous rite of passage. But the moment never came. The pandemic hit just a few weeks later, and instead of going to classes and extracurriculars in person, Leah logged on from her laptop at home. The prom was canceled, along with almost every other in-person group gathering. So the dress sat in her closet, unworn, for four years—until this spring.

Now a senior musical theater major at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Bernal recently landed a leading role in a stage production called The Prom. When director Patrick Pearson picked the musical for his department to perform, he knew it had a powerful message. The play premiered on Broadway in 2018 and was adapted into a 2020 movie starring Meryl Streep and James Corden. It’s based on the true story of Constance McMillen of Itawamba County, Mississippi, who in 2010 was forbidden from bringing her girlfriend to the prom. After McMillen sued the school district with the help of the ACLU, the district canceled the prom. Local parents then organized a secret, private prom and excluded McMillen (who won her lawsuit, as well as the support of celebrity fans such as Wanda Sykes and Perez Hilton).

Pearson selected The Prom in part for its unifying message. “One of the huge morals in the show is about acceptance, inclusion, and opportunity—just having a prom for everyone,” he said. But what he hadn’t realized was that many of his senior students had also missed out on their proms exactly four years prior. After theater studies major and costume designer Grace Wacker told Pearson that many of her peers had mentioned how much performing in the show meant to them, he decided to approach his fellow faculty and staff members with an idea: “What would y’all think if we gave them a prom after The Prom?”

Upon receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from the higher-ups, Pearson took the good news back to his ecstatic cast and crew. The group chose a disco theme, designed decorations, made playlists, and arranged food and drinks. Wacker was instrumental in helping with the planning efforts—and adamant that the prom be as inclusive as possible. The theater kids extended an open invitation to everyone across campus to join the party on Sunday, April 28.

Meanwhile, as the lead for the show, Bernal was getting to experience a theatrical prom with each performance. But she was still looking forward to the real thing at the end. After the last show wrapped, on the night of April 27, students finally enjoyed the day of preparation and anticipation that had eluded them for four years. And Bernal finally got to wear her red dress. “They had the lights onstage, the streamers, the balloons that were a part of the set from the show,” she said. “It was just such a magical night, with everyone dancing.”  

About 180 students attended the prom, according to Lily Broekhuis, a theater design and technology major from Richmond who helped plan the event. For Broekhuis, who uses they/them pronouns, it wasn’t just about reclaiming a missed opportunity. “I had more fun than I would’ve in high school,” Broekhuis said, noting that they feel greater confidence and a clearer sense of identity now than four years ago. “I took my girlfriend to the prom here, and I don’t think I would’ve felt comfortable to bring a same-sex partner [back then].”

These real-world echoes got Wacker thinking about Texas students who still face prejudice similar to that experienced by the play’s main character. While admission to the SHSU prom was free, organizers accepted donations, and Wacker hosted a bake sale to raise more funds. She and other organizers donated $500 to the Montrose Center, a Houston nonprofit that supports LGBTQ youth and adults and hosts an inclusive prom each year. “We all really wanted to find a way to pay it forward to people who were younger,” said Wacker, noting how privileged the group felt to have a professor who encouraged them to run with the idea.

Pearson says he’s proud to have seen his students embrace the message of their performance and extend it beyond the stage. “When you’re seventeen years old, you might not realize the power of your voice,” he said. “By the time these students are upperclassmen in college, they’re realizing: ‘I do have a voice, and my voice matters, and I have something I need to say.’ ”