One Square Mile: A Newton High understudy gets her turn in the spotlight

Newton High School
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Newton High School | Covington | 34 miles southeast of Atlanta
“Anybody want Throat Coat?!” yells Mrs. Bellamy, holding a spray bottle at the front of the auditorium. Sophomore Nadia Saadein leaps from her seat; sprints slightly pigeon-toed in her 1990s costume of black tights, cutoff denim overalls, and Doc Martens to the drama teacher; and opens wide for a couple squirts of the liquid said to soothe singers’ vocal cords. She resumes her quiet perch on the riser at center stage, legs hanging, ankles crossed and swinging. Her castmates cut up and laugh, buzzing all around her, yet she remains apart. She is 15 years old. “Places!” shouts Mrs. Bellamy, sending Nadia and company scurrying to the darkness backstage. When she was younger, Nadia was fearless. In her kindergarten class’s Christmas play, she stole the show as a little elf. Growing up, she’d dance around her bedroom and sing, sing, sing until her lungs were spent. In high school, she wanted more than anything to play Joanne Jefferson, the Ivy League lawyer and protagonist in Rent, but settled for being the understudy for Maureen Johnson, the outlandish, bisexual performance artist. “She’s loud and slutty,” Nadia says. “I like being someone I’m not.” Nadia’s best friend, Kayla, also auditioned for Maureen. When Kayla got the lead, Nadia was happy for her. Really. But tomorrow night’s performance is Nadia’s turn in the spotlight; Kayla will be the backup. As tonight’s rehearsal begins, Nadia sits in the shadows, chin on her prop drumstick as she pantomimes the words being sung onstage. Toward the end of act one, she gets her cue—Maureen’s solo, “Over the Moon.” Without hesitation, Nadia marches toward center stage and belts out the song in an alto slightly off-key but powerful and free. A voice equal parts confident woman and fearless little girl.

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.