CLASS OF 2023: A thespian at South uses art to build connection

This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.

Trae Green wanted his grandmother to see him perform in South Salem High School’s musical revue the fall of his junior year.

When she died from cancer just before the show, his performance took on a new resonance. Green took the stage to sing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” a cascading song of grief and regret from “Les Miserables.”

“I remember being up on stage and … singing that not for anyone but myself,” he said of the November 2021 show.

For the South Salem senior and thespian, it was a perfect example of how art can forge connection in a divided world.

“It just shifts people’s perspectives,” Green, 18, said. “Art doesn’t discriminate based on your beliefs …  it’s going to emotionally impact you, and it’s going to make you feel something and you can do what you want with those feelings.”

After starring in and directing shows at South, playing a leading role as Donkey in Pentacle Theatre’s production of Shrek and performing at Oregon’s student theater festival, Green is heading to Howard University’s Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts to study acting.

He’s one of just 20 students in the U.S. accepted to the school, from a pool of at least 600 applicants.

Green got the news as he was in the makeup room behind stage at South, helping break down sets for advanced theater performances.

“I started jumping up and down and screaming,” he said.

Green loved singing growing up. His first performance in front of an audience was in second grade, when he sang and danced Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” for the school talent show. It went well, with classmates clapping and cheering. From then on, Green knew what he wanted to do.

“There’s a rush that I get when I’m performing,” he said.

He’s thoughtful and focused when discussing his art, but smiles easily and can shift between dramatic and comedic roles with expertise.

Julianna Gibbons, South’s theater teacher, said his mix of passion and focus was evident from his first day in her class. He was able to work well with a variety of people, shifting his energy and performance to complement theirs.

“When you decide you’re going to have something, you just go,” Gibbons told Green during an interview. During the pandemic, he taught himself to tape auditions, learning videography and light design so he could be more marketable as an actor.

Green said he wanted to attend Howard, a historically Black university, so he could focus on his studies without worrying about his race impacting how he’s perceived.

“I don’t want to be the minority anymore. Because that’s what I’ve been my whole life,” he said. He’s wary of stories that might include or even star Black characters and characters of color, but still embody stereotypes or center on white characters’ experiences and perspectives.

As an actor, he wants his work to focus on “doing those characters justice in a way that fully represents their story and fully makes that marginalized group of people heard.”

Theater isn’t Green’s only form of storytelling. He’s also active in South’s culinary program and spent much of the pandemic learning to cook traditional Jamaican dishes from his grandmother on his father’s side.

He described cooking as a form of art “portraying a story through flavors that people are having in their mouth.”

Between culinary events students cater and theater performances, Green often didn’t get home until 11 p.m. or later many nights his senior year. He laughed when asked how he got homework done, saying he’s still not quite sure.

Green was a soloist in South’s jazz choir, singing during the ensemble’s state-winning performance at Oregon State University mid-May. He and his choirmates waited as an announcer read the list of winning ensembles.

“I heard South Salem and then I just stood up and started running on stage. I was the first one up,” he said. “It was awesome.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.