The Outsiders

The greasers (Riordan Banks, Carlos Vera and Cristina Goyeneche) struggle with class differences in "The Outsiders," opening this weekend at The Empty Space.

With a story like "The Outsiders" audiences have certain expectations.

S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders," written in 1967, is a staple of high school reading. The coming-of-age classic challenges readers with themes of masculinity and class warfare. The story was even more ingrained into popular culture after the release of the 1983 film adaptation. "The Outsiders" has withstood the test of time but it raises the question: Is there any way to add to this established narrative?

"It's a story of struggle," said Nolan Long, director of The Empty Space's "The Outsiders," which opens Friday. "It's about people trying to survive. It's a conflict of classes. Very early on we knew we wanted to do something different for the casting. Most of the greasers are played by people of color or female actors."

“The Outsiders” is the first show that Long has directed for the Oak Street theater. The story is near and dear to the director. He understands better than any fan the pressure of bringing a well-known show like this to audiences.

"People have expectations with a show like this," Long said. "The actors are fantastic. These are people representing different walks of life."

Kelsea Johnson plays Cherry, a typical high school girl who has a desire to understand the struggle for the greasers. Johnson hopes younger audiences come out to watch the show to explore the heavy themes of class struggle.

"We're breaking down norms," Johnson said. "Greasers are played by women and people of color and we're not touching on anything but the class differences."

Johnny, a greaser described as looking like a puppy that's been kicked too many times, suffers more physical abuse than any other in "The Outsiders." Kiera Gill takes on the role, bringing with it a new understanding of the character. There is a vulnerability to the character that brings humanity to the rest of the group, she said. 

"I'm not sure I'm doing something new — other than the fact that I'm coming at this from a female perspective," Gill said. "This is a story about young boys acting in ways they think they are supposed to."

The largest challenge with the show for Gill has been navigating the fight scenes. Gill compares them to dance choreography that requires trust in your partners.

The casting decisions have given the actors new freedom in roles they can portray.

"In acting, you get your type," Gill said. "People have decided the roles that you are allowed to pay. Having the opportunity to play a role not based on how I look but based on how I can perform is so liberating."

Bowen West can be reached at 661-395-7660.

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