Matthew Whaley grad returns as part of play

An actor's art came full circle on Friday with a performance of "Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad" at Matthew Whaley Elementary School.

Greg Stowers attended the school for his elementary years, graduating in 2002. Yesterday, as a member of Richmond's Virginia Repertory Theatre, he returned to the place that fostered his passion for performing.

"I'm very excited," Stowers said. "I haven't gone back since going there."

While he was a student at the school, Stowers met Genrose Lashinger, a music teacher who taught at the school for 34 years and defined the course of Stowers' life.

"He's always had that spark," Lashinger said. "I recognized that he had talent. Then I stepped back and let him find his way."

She convinced him to join her Rainbow Connection children's choir, a touring group that performs at schools and other venues throughout the area.

Lashinger's last year at the school was Stowers' fourth grade year. She left with a grand finale: an elaborate production of the musical, "Cats." She cast him in his first acting role as Rum Tum Tugger, one of the play's main characters.

That role imbued Stowers with "the rush you get from performing."

Before retiring, Lashinger made it clear that he could pursue the performing arts as a career.

"It established my confidence in myself," he said.

The next year, Stowers landed a role in Lafayette High School's interpretation of "Tommy," a major opportunity for such a young actor.

"He has a very effusive personality that really comes through to the audience," Stowers' father, Bob Stowers, said. "He's a joy onstage."

Stowers ultimately hopes to have the same impact that Lashinger had on him.

After graduating from James Madison University in 2013 with a degree in musical theatre performance, Stowers spent time in Minnesota performing for Midwestern spectators.

Working for the Prairie Fire Children's Theatre in Barrett, Minnesota, and the National Theater for Children in Minneapolis, Stowers played dream roles like Captain Hook in "Peter Pan."

"I loved performing those for a completely different audience," he said.

More recently, Stowers was contracted by Virginia Repertory Theatre for their current children's theater season, which launched in September and runs through May.

There, he is one of five troupe members; they do all of the necessary work, from erecting sets and running sound equipment to finding the perfect lighting for maximum impact.

"It's a really cool experience, especially being young," Stowers said.

He said that some of their shows are educational and some are just plain fun. Either way, he hopes to create new fans of performance art.

"It's a chance to show kids all across the country that even if you don't want to be an actor, you can still appreciate the arts," he said.

The big day

Stowers' ample height and exuberance commanded the students' full attention within Matthew Whaley's crowded auditorium.

His parents were proud, but Bob Stowers acknowledged, "It's not as special to me as I know it is to him."

"Harriet Tubman," a musical interpretation of the titular character's life, is Stowers' third of four plays with the theatre this season. Matthew Whaley marked their final performance of the show in their tour.

As the troupe's sole white male, he transformed between several characters. His main roles was Mr. Moses, the book publisher who initially rejected her biography before a change of heart.

"While slavery is done, we're still fighting ignorance," Stowers said, excited to share that lesson with the school's students.

"They're at a really good age to learn great habits," Stowers said. "With our political climate today, it's really important to understand the people who are different than you."

He said the point was not necessarily to agree with everyone but to tolerate various views.

Lashinger also returned to the school to witness the play.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful experience," she said with a beaming smile, in between hugs with Stowers and his parents.

Stowers is still figuring out what his next move is. He plans to return to Minnesota for a summer stint, and he may audition for the Virginia Repertory Theatre's next season.

Eventually, a bigger city like New York or London awaits.

"That's a totally different beast than what I'm doing right now," Stowers said.

But Stowers' love of performing for children prevails, and that likely won't change any time soon.

"Not only is it fun, but it pays well," he said. "I enjoy the energy that I receive from children as I'm performing with them or performing for them and thinking about the future."

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.

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