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Local Drama Teacher Wendell Tabb’s Passion Garners Tony Award Recognition

Wendell Tabb spent much of his life training for a career as a stage actor. So when an opportunity arose to teach drama at Hillside High School in Durham, he thought the gig would be a detour on his life journey.

As it turned out, Tabb found his calling among the students, many of whom were yearning for a professional and high-intensity theater education. 

Meet Hillside High School drama teacher and mentor Wendell Tabb.

After three decades at Hillside High, Tabb has earned a multitude of accolades for his work, including a day named after him in Durham County and recent recognition at the 2017 Tony Awards.

Host Frank Stasio speaks with Tabb about the lessons he has learned in his 30-year career.​ 


On the finding out he did not make the school basketball team:

I got cut off the basketball team when I went to Louisburg High School. I look back at that now and think there was a reason for that, because I went over to track, and I would have never ever gone to track … I thought I was going to the NBA. You know, when you’re growing up in the country, if you can play a sport, you think you’re gonna be the next star. 

On his former alter ego – DJ Soda Pop:

My dad, cousin and some friends owned a nightclub in Henderson, North Carolina, and I was one of the DJs there. I was around – I probably shouldn’t have been working – I was young, like 14. And [I] learned how to spin records and truly be a DJ. So I really enjoyed that. [I] got to meet a lot of people … A lot of the people that support me now were some of those people who used to see me as a young little DJ in the club [at ] 14, 15, 16 years old. 

On lessons gleaned from acting in his first high school play:

I got six lines in the play … First thing you do is count how many lines you have. And so I did that. I went home and told my mom and said, “You know what? I don’t have a big part in this play. I only have six lines.” She said, “Son it doesn’t matter how many lines you have. It’s how well you do the part.” … It really did stick with me. I didn’t count lines anymore. 

On being recognized at the 2017 Tony Awards:

It wasn’t a best actor award. It wasn’t featured actor. But it was an honorable mention … So I was like, “Well that’s great.” Anytime you can get mentioned by those types of organizations,  that’s the beginning … I always say it’s the beginning. 

Before he was "Mr. Tabb," Wendell was DJ Soda Pop. He spun R&B, soul, and disco records at his father's nightclub, Lake East, in Henderson, North Carolina
Courtesy Wendell Tabb /
Before he was "Mr. Tabb," Wendell was DJ Soda Pop. He spun R&B, soul, and disco records at his father's nightclub, Lake East, in Henderson, North Carolina
Courtesy Wendell Tabb /

Copyright 2017 North Carolina Public Radio

Laura Pellicer is a producer with The State of Things (hyperlink), a show that explores North Carolina through conversation. Laura was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, a city she considers arrestingly beautiful, if not a little dysfunctional. She worked as a researcher for CBC Montreal and also contributed to their programming as an investigative journalist, social media reporter, and special projects planner. Her work has been nominated for two Canadian RTDNA Awards. Laura loves looking into how cities work, pursuing stories about indigenous rights, and finding fresh voices to share with listeners. Laura is enamored with her new home in North Carolina—notably the lush forests, and the waves where she plans on moonlighting as a mediocre surfer.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.