Press

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Corpus Christi Renews Faith in Live Theater
How a play about a gay Jesus renewed my faith in theater.

I love live theater. I can’t remember the first live theater production I ever saw, but I remember the first one that really got to me. It was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at E.J. Thomas Hall circa 1986.

I had grown up listening to JCS; my mom was a fanatic and played the original Broadway soundtrack almost every weekend. But that first production opened my eyes to the power of live theater, to its infinite possibilities.

In that production, Jesus dressed like he had just walked off the set of Miami Vice; the Sanhedrin was costumed in biker leathers; and the disciples ate corn chips and drank beer at the last supper. I’ve lost count of the number of productions of JCS I’ve seen over the years — somewhere around 14, I think — but when I think of that musical, that first experience is always the one I remember most vividly.

In the past month, I’ve seen three live theater productions, from amateur productions to professional touring companies. All were painfully bad or plain disappointing.

I was beginning to lose my faith in the power of live theater, which seemed to have lost its social relevance.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a  good musical or even a rollicking comedy; they certainly have their places in live theater. But, what I really love is social theater, the kind that gets under the skin, and — most importantly — teaches us about ourselves and our place in the world.

None of the three productions I saw recently even attempted to do any such thing. As a result, they felt superficial, saccharine, sensationalized. There was no life to those performances, no fire. There was no there there.

And then I saw Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi is a modern retelling of the life of Jesus except in this one, Jesus happens to be gay … and is played by a woman.

In fact, in this version, produced by Heads Up Productions, gender is completely fluid: Mary was played by a man, Joseph by a woman, the disciples were represented by both men and women of different races, ages, shapes, sizes, and religious backgrounds. It was dizzying and inspirational. It made me wonder. It made me think. It made me laugh. It made me cry. That’s what theater should be about, not just bodies on a stage moving around like machines, hitting their marks.

It should make you feel. Something. Anything.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention here that Heads Up Productions was co-founded by a former student of mine, Benjamin Rexroad. He’s going by Benjamin these days, but he was always Ben back then, and he’s always been Benny to me.

Benny was in the first class I had when I became a teacher. He took nearly every class I offered. I was the Drama Club adviser; he was the president. I was the Yearbook adviser; he was the editor. He took my Introduction to Theater course, and I directed him in three productions.

Now Ben has become the director. He majored in Theater at The University of Akron and co-founded Heads Up Productions with Stow resident TJ Jozsa, whom I had the pleasure of watching grow up on the Stow-Munroe Falls High School stage. Both of them, as well as the excellent company they have put together (including Stow resident Nici Romo, read her blog about the play here.), clearly understand that theater should be a visceral experience. When done correctly, with knowledge, openness and passion, it is.

In the theater class I teach, we read and watch plays from various genres. The students always enjoy and learn something from such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and Brighton Beach Memoirs, but, it’s not until we enter the social theater unit at the end of the year when we read The Laramie Project or watch Rent that students react emotionally. They actually cry.

They cry when we read aloud Matthew Shepard’s father’s speech, and they cry all over again when we watch the film based on the play. The rawness of their emotions move me to tears, and I get chills because that’s what theater is supposed to be about. It’s why theater education is necessary.

I was reminded of all of this as I sat in the audience at Corpus Christi, feeling inspired once again, so proud that Benny was carrying on the theater tradition in such a meaningful way.

There I was, the teacher learning from the student. It felt right. It felt complete. And it helped renew my faith in the power of theater.

-Jenna Bates
The Stow Patch

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“Corpus Christi” brings gay marriage to the church

Heads Up Productions, a new Akron theater company, is bringing “Corpus Christi” to First Grace United Church of Christ.

Benjamin Rexroad, artistic director of Heads Up Productions, has been at The University of Akron for six years now. He began his first semester studying Humanities, but switched to a Theater degree. He will be graduating in May.

Rexroad was one of the members to create Heads Up Productions and realize its inception in December 2009.

“That year, I was working at a theater in the area in the summer,” said Rexroad. “I decided that I absolutely hated what they were doing. I really admire their shows and the people who work on them, but in terms of what kind of shows they were producing, I wasn’t a fan because they did the big musicals and that’s not who I am.

“I quit and started managing a band. During the course of the summer, I realized that I wasn’t a band manager. So TJ [Jozsa] and I started talking, and we both had a background in theater. We were like, ‘Hey, let’s start a theater company.’”

“Corpus Christi” will be the team’s 7th show produced.

The Arts Director at First Grace United Church of Christ asked Heads Up Production if they wanted to produce Corpus Christi.

“This church is very open, and they do a lot of stuff for the gay community. They were looking for something to do for the Easter weekend,” said Rexroad.

The show, written by Terrence McNally, is a passion play set in 1970′s Texas. Corpus Christi is the name of a town in Texas. The story draws on that of Jesus and the Apostles, but in this version, the main characters are gay men dealing with modern-day prejudices and the conflicts between homosexuality and the church.

“I think it [Corpus Christi] means body of Christ […] in Latin,” said Rexroad. “Corpus Christi is about this guy named Joshua, who finds out he has a calling and goes out and preaches the good word about living a good life, what God means, and what true love is. There are some very heavy gay scenes involved in the show. Joshua, the Jesus-like figure, performs a gay marriage. He also shares a small relationship with Judas. It’s a romantic entanglement, but not exactly.”

Heads Up Productions has received plenty of hate mail for their production of “Corpus Christi.”

“It feels really good. It sucks that there are people out there who feel that way. I am honestly very sad for these people who have sent [hate] mail, who are filled with this much hate. It’s so ridiculous to me, to feel this passionate to hate something. No one has bothered to sign their name…they miss the whole big picture of what this show is,” said Rexroad.

“I’m trying to respect where the people are coming from and not be mad at them because everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” said Margaret Lute, who plays John the Baptist, Joshua’s cousin in the play. “It’s just been your wrong and I’m going to pray for you, basically.

“I have gotten looks from friends of the family when trying to explain about the play because I was raised Christian and they would be like, ‘Jesus is homosexual in the play?’”

“As an actor, I have developed a pretty thick skin,” said Tyler Hodges, graduate student at The University of Akron. “I have performed in a number of controversial shows, so “Corpus Christi” is not uncharted territory for me. I do not consider the criticism we have received to be detrimental to this production. With this show we are sparking a conversation with the community. We are getting people to think and to speak out. That’s why we are doing this piece. Sure, there are those who vehemently oppose our work, but at least they are responding to us with passion and not apathy. At least they are talking to us and engaging us.”

“It’s hard to take people seriously who just quote the Bible at me as a means to being ‘right,’ especially taken out-of-context,” said Amy Spencer, cast member.  “I have to agree with what one cast member said: people can use the Bible however they want to support whatever kind of message they think is right. People have used Bible verses to justify genocide, slavery and other examples of treating other types of human beings as less than.”

Some of the actors were able to describe what their characters wanted in the play.

“My character would want people to listen to Joshua,” said Lute.

“I play Matthew, the lawyer,” said Hodges. “Matthew wants to maintain his materialistic lifestyle. He’s rich. He’s well known. He has a great job, a great house and a great car. He always gets the girls. When he meets Joshua, he is conflicted. He wants to follow Joshua, but is reluctant to give up his earthly possessions. He wants to find truth and honesty, but has been conditioned to crave money and success.”

“His wants change throughout the play,” said Spencer of his character. “He does state quite plainly that he wants to love someone, wants someone to love him, wants to be happy and wants his life to matter. As time passes, he wants everyone to love God and love each other as they would love themselves. And though he wants to live, he gives up his life because he would rather see God’s plan and his life’s purpose through to the end.”

The play does present some moments that seemed awkward at first for the actors.

“There’s a part in the play where Erika and I are playing characters that are in high school. It’s after the dance and we are in the bathroom. We have to pretend to be guys peeing and we are facing the audience. That’s like, ‘Okay this is awkward,’” said Lute.

“For me, there are no awkward moments in the play,” said Hodges. “I’m sure there will be several awkward moments for the audience. Prior to beginning the rehearsal process in earnest, we spent two weeks team-building and talking and learning about each other. So, the cast is very comfortable with each other physically and psychologically. There are many moments where straight men have to kiss each other and show affection. But we have a high level of trust and we know why we are doing what we are doing, so it’s not awkward at all for me.”

“There are sometimes where I haven’t discovered why my character does what he does, and I feel awkward saying or doing something I don’t understand yet,” said Spencer. “But awkwardness sometimes comes with the rehearsal process, and it is my job as an actor to eventually know why I say and do everything I do.”

The play also contains many scenes that the actors found moving.

“We were doing the crucifix scene. I’m playing the cousin. It brought up emotions that weren’t expected, because my cousin passed away last August. It was very triggering. I was crying throughout the entire time. I just kept seeing the funeral,” said Lute.

“I get emotional when Joshua kisses Matthew’s feet. Matthew refuses to kiss Joshua’s feet because he thinks it is degrading. Joshua shows love to Matthew and kisses his – my – feet. That is where a lot of things come to a head for Matthew and myself. It’s definitely a watershed moment. I have a pretty thick skin, and it’s a really disarming and vulnerable moment,” said Hodges.

“There are countless parts of the play that make me emotional,” said Spencer. “Every time I have a personal moment with another actor on stage, there is emotion. The last 15 to 20 minutes of the play feels like a nonstop rolling of one extreme emotion to the next, but that’s because the stakes are so high, and it’s the climax of the story.”

“For me, it was like having the weight of the world on my shoulders and being forced to watch somebody I love go through the worst possible thing,” said Woodworth.

“Corpus Christi” opens Thursday and will run through Saturday. Tickets will be sold for five dollars at the door or reservations can be made by calling 330-990-5138.

-Diana Perez
The Buchtelite

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Heads Up set to stage ‘Corpus Christi’ (WITH VIDEOS)

by April Helms |
Special Products Editor

At this time of year, area Christian churches are gearing up for Easter worship and celebrations.

Heads Up Productions, an independent theater company, is seen as a part of the Easter observance at First Grace United Church of Christ in Akron, with its production of “Corpus Christi,” by Terrence McNally. The shows are April 21 through 23, at 7 p.m.

Video taken at a recent rehearsal


“Corpus Christi” relates many several stories from the Bible, including the story of Lazarus and the meetings with the Apostles. But there are a few twists: One, is the story is set in contemporary times. Joshua, the Jesus-like figure and leader of the group, and his disciples go to a dance club at one point. Also, Joshua and his Apostles are gay men, living in modern-day Texas. All of the characters are men, but several of the ensemble members — including Amy Spencer, who grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, who plays Joshua, and Kim Woodworth of Aurora who plays Judas — are women.

“There are people of all different sizes, shapes, ages, backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, gay, straight,” said Benjamin Rexroad, director. “This was an important component when we were casting the show, to have a diverse group of people.”

Other members of the ensemble include Erika Kinney from Cleveland; Brian Jackson; Chris Laney from Massillion; Nici Romo from Stow; John Burton from Akron; Margaret Lute; Tyler Hodges from Ashland; Rob Branch from Elyria; Robyn Cooper from Cuyahoga Falls; TJ Jozsa from Stow; and Joel Kirk from San Fransisco, Ohio.

Video interviews with the director and some of the cast


Rexroad said that as well as the play, Heads Up has been spearheading story circles and talks to reach out to the community. Story Circles will be at First Grace United Church of Christ, Cascade Community Church, and Community Aids Network, The University of Akron’s LGBTU and Akron Pride Initiative. Thoughts on the play from the cast and staff of Heads Up, as well as other information, can be found at www.headsupproductions.net.

“We’re really trying to get out to the public and make this as easily accessible as possible,” Rexroad said. “We’re not afraid to stand behind what we believe in. We’re not trying to hide who we are.”

J.T. Buck, the arts director with First Grace United Church, said he saw “Corpus Christi” as “a spiritual and religious play” and as “our way of practicing what we preach.”

“This play has renewed resonance” in regards to the bullying issue today, Buck said. “This church does as much as it can to be open and accepting. We would like to see gay, lesbian, transgender, those questioning and their family and friends to see this as a chance for healing.”

Video interview with J.T. Buck, art director at First Grace


Performances will be at the First Grace United Church of Christ, 350 South Portage Path in Akron. Tickets are $5. Reservations can be made by calling 330-990-5138 or by visiting the Corpus Christi page at www.headsupproductions.net/corpus-christi

Immediately following the performances of Corpus Christi, First Grace will have a post-show worship service to commemorate Holy Week. Patrons are invited but not required to attend services.

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Heads Up Productions Critically Engages Audience

March 1, 2011

by Amanda Cirone
Mount Union Dynamo

The theater company Heads Up Productions is verily turning heads with their thought-provoking shows.

Heads Up Productions is a theater company based in Akron, Ohio. The company began from the combined dream of Benjamin Rexroad, the company’s Artistic Director, and TJ Jozsa, the Assistant Artistic Director of the company and Mount Union student. Heads Up Productions’ mission is “to engage the Akron community in dialogues about diversity and social issues through dynamic live performances,” as is stated on their website.

“We really believe in the power of the audience and their imagination,” said Jozsa, a senior Political Science major and Pre-Law minor at Mount Union. He describes the typical theater set as extremely elaborate and detailed.  Heads Up would rather have the audience fill in the blanks with the sets and costumes, allowing the audience to have a more fulfilling and involved theater experience. “It might look really nice, but you’re limiting the audience,” he added. “We have simple sets, simple costumes. That way, you watch and the audience puts whatever association they want with it.”

The shows performed at Heads Up have truly shaped the company into what it is. “Heads Up is really about dynamic choices,” said Jozsa, “dynamic interactions with the audience and really making a strong political statement.” Their purpose in a show is to point out ideas and concepts that people are missing in the current society and news media.

Jozsa noticed through his theater experience and studies in political science that the two topics actually go hand in hand. “What I found is that there is so much that interconnects theater and political science,” he said. “With every statement and metaphor on stage, there’s always something political behind it.”

“1,000 Hills” is a play written by India Burton, a company member, playwright and director at Heads Up, about the Rwandan Genocide. According to their website, the show tells the story of three tourists who get tangled in the chaos of Rwanda. Hitting the stage in October 2010, “1,000 Hills” pushed the audience’s imagination. Roles were switched. Caucasian actors played African American characters and vice versa.  Young people portrayed old. This is just one of their politically-charged shows.

Another statement performance, “Corpus Christi,” begins Easter weekend. Jozsa described the show as such: “It takes place in present day Corpus Christi, Texas. It follows Jesus and his disciples, only they’re all gay in the show.” Jozsa acknowledged that this aspect of the play may upset some people, which is not the goal of Heads Up. He says their goal is to make the audience think. “The thing is,” Jozsa continued to explain, “it’s not really about gay Jews. It’s about loving everyone how you would love your neighbor kind of thing.”

The controversial show written by Terrence McNally and directed by Benjamin Rexroad begins April 21, 2011 and runs until April 23.

-Mount Union Dynamo

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Theater ‘something I have to do,’ says Stow grad

February, 13, 2011

by April Helms |
Special Products Editor

https://i0.wp.com/www.hudsonhubtimes.com/images/hht_media/20110213/photos/HHT21011TJLaramie.jpg

TJ Josza said he got his first taste of theater at Highland elementary school in Stow.

“They did a musical, ‘Rainbow Connection,’” said Josza, who graduated from Stow-Munroe Falls High School in 2007. “The music teacher assigned us all parts, and I was picked to be the conductor.”

Today, Josza is the assistant artistic director of Heads Up Productions, an Akron-based theater company. He is a senior at Mount Union College, studying political science and pre-law.

“Actually, it’s a better fit than you might think,” Josza said of his studies and his love of theater. “A lot of theater is very political.”

Josza said he had actually taken a hiatus from theater for a while when he went back to school, but after meeting with Benjamin Rexroad, artistic director of Heads Up, “I realized that theater was something I had to do.”

As well as being assistant artistic director, Josza has acted in several of Heads Up Productions shows, including “Eurydice,” “The Laramie Project” and “1,000 Hills-A Staged Reading.” He also will be in Heads Up’s production of “Corpus Christi,” which will be staged April 21 through 23 at the First Grace United Church of Christ in Akron.

Josza said some of his more memorable shows were “The Laramie Project,” “Les Miserables” and “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” “Charlie Brown” was one he directed for his own theater company, Dramatic, and was staged at Kimpton Middle School when he was 19. He also played Snoopy.

“That was my precursor to Heads Up Productions,” he said.

Rexroad said that the two of them work well together.

“We complement each other very well,” Rexroad said. “What I don’t do well, he compensates for and can pick up the slack.”

“The way I put it is he’s left handed, which means the right side of his brain is more active, and I’m right handed, which means the left side of my brain is more active,” Josza added. “The two of us together work very well.”

Josza said that he saw theater as a way of “moving people on a community-wide basis.”

“One of the reasons why I do theater is to reach a more fully realized version of myself,” Josza said. “I also hope the audience will realize something about themselves.”

For details on Heads Up Productions, visit the company’s web site at www.headsupproductions.net.

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Heads Up Productions brings art of the theater to Akron area

February 7, 2011

Jeff Schapiro
The Suburbanite

“I’ve been doing theater since I was a freshman in high school,” said 23 year-old Benjamin Rexroad, artistic director and one of the founders of the Akron-based theater company, Heads Up Productions. His eyes grew wide and he cracked a smile at the realization that he had been involved in theater for over 10 years, nearly half of his life.

His experience in show business isn’t just limited to high school plays, either. He spent time working at Weathervane Playhouse, Carousel Dinner Theater, and Porthouse Theater at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls. He also spent some time working as the band manager for a group called Maid Myriad, through whom he met T.J. Jozsa, Heads Up’s assistant artistic director. While Rexroad was still working with the band, Jozsa saw what he was truly passionate about.

“I was able to help him realize that music wasn’t what he wanted to do, theater was.”
In order to make his dreams become a reality, Rexroad has gone to extremes to receive the best in theater training. He once walked three miles in the middle of the night to ask his college professor, Jim Slowiak, to mentor him. He also traveled all the way to New York to receive training from SITI Company, an organization which was co-founded by famed director Anne Bogart and whose primary goal is to strengthen and revitalize contemporary theater in the United States.

Heads Up’s shows are much different from many other, much more expensive, productions. Rexroad believes that having simple sets, and staying away from grand special effects, “places the actor back in the central role.”

“We believe in the audience’s imagination,” said Jozsa, signifying their trust in the creativity of the audience’s mind to place the actors in a more developed setting.
Since the company’s inception they have fared well, and have been able to produce six shows so far. Even more impressively, perhaps, is that they have been able to pay all of their actors since their very first show, which was an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The company has even produced an original play, called “1,000 Hills,” which was written by their own India Burton and was directed by Rexroad.

“All of our shows deal with social commentary and social justice,” he said of his company, which doesn’t shy away from issues that are sensitive to today’s culture. “We want our audience, and ourselves, to somehow be changed after our shows.”

Heads Up seems to be out to change the world through their art, but they are starting by helping the local community.  When they performed a play called “A Woman Called Truth,” for example, they donated one dollar out of every ticket sold to a battered women’s shelter. They have also given discounted tickets, on certain occasions, to people who brought in canned goods as a part of a food drive. To further their cause, the company only charges five dollars per ticket so that their shows are affordable to almost everyone in the area. “We want them to see the art,” Rexroad said.

The opportunities for these young, and somewhat unconventional, artists continue to multiply, as Rexroad and Jozsa have been given the opportunity to co-produce a show in Minnesota with a Minneapolis-based theater company.

For more information on Heads Up Productions, show dates and locations, or contact information, visit http://www.HeadsUpProductions.net. Anyone interested in becoming a part of a Heads Up performance should contact the company directly to schedule an audition.
In a time when, according to Rexroad, “support for the arts is dwindling at best,” Heads Up Productions members are doing what they love, all while making a difference.

-The Suburbanite

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Falls hospital presents Sojourner Truth drama Jan. 14

January 9, 2011

In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Summa Western Reserve Hospital invites the community to a free, 30-minute presentation of “A Woman Called Truth: The Story of Sojourner Truth” by Sandra Fenichel, which will take place at 11 a.m. Jan. 14 in Summa Western Reserve Hospital’s Auditorium I.

The performance will be staged by the Akron-based, diversity-driven Heads Up Productions. This is just one of many ways Summa Western Reserve Hospital seeks to engage a diversely rich community and educate patients, guests, friends and neighbors, according to a hospital news release.

“A Woman Called Truth” stars University of Akron theater student India Burton and University of Akron theater graduate Heather Beyer, both of whom are founding members of Heads Up Productions. Both Burton and Beyer have performed in, directed and written several plays.

“In paying tribute to the work, mission and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we feel that the Sojourner Truth story is one which played a significant role in inspiring Dr. King to continue the fight for freedom for all people,” says Robert DeJournett, director of Community Relations & Diversity at Summa Western Reserve Hospital.

For more information, contact DeJournett at 330-696-5292.

Cuyahoga Falls News Press

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Woman Called Truth staged

January 9, 2011

First Grace United Church of Christ is hosting Heads Up Productions’ performance of “A Woman Called Truth,” a celebration of the life of Sojourner Truth, written by Sandra Fenichel Asher.

“A Woman Called Truth” is directed by Heads Up Productions’ company member Heather Beyer of Tallmadge. Performances will be in Schroer Hall of First Grace, at 350 S. Portage Path in Akron. Performance dates are Jan. 13 through 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 and available at the door or by calling 330-612-3090; $1 of every ticket sold will be donated to The Battered Women’s Shelter of Akron.

“Well, children, where there’s so much racket, there must be something out of kilter.” So begins Sojourner Truth’s historic Ain’t I a Woman speech delivered here in Akron in 1851. “A Woman Called Truth” chronicles the life of this striking woman from the day she is ripped away from her family, through her struggle for freedom, to her emergence as a popular and respected figure fighting for abolition and women’s rights. “A Woman Called Truth” combines Sojourner’s actual words with authentic spirituals.

The ensemble includes India Burton from Akron; Randall E. Hall from Akron; April Haugabrook from Warrensville; Tyler Hodges from Ashland; Eliza Marie Jacops from Akron; Bobby Round from Akron; and Kim Woodworth from Aurora.

Tallmadge Express

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Theater troupe stages The Laramie Project

August 8, 2010
Photo special to Record Publishing Co.;  April Turner plays Zubaida Ula at the Candle Vigil for Matthew Shepherd.Photo special to Record Publishing Co.;  TJ Jozsa from Stow plays Russell Henderson, waiting to hear his jail sentence.
Photo special to Record Publishing Co.; On the left, April Turner as Zubaida Ula at the Candle Vigil for Matthew Shepard. On the right, TJ Jozsa from Stow plays Russell Henderson, waiting to hear his jail sentence.

First Grace United Church of Christ is hosting Heads Up Productions and its version of “The Laramie Project.”

Performances will be in the sanctuary of First Grace, at 350 S. Portage Path in Akron. Performance dates are Aug. 13 and 14, and Aug. 19 through 21. All performances are at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $5 and available at the door or by calling 330-990-5138.

“The Laramie Project” is directed by India Burton. It is set in the aftermath of the 1998 slaying of Matthew Shepherd in Laramie, Wy. Moises Kaufman and The Tectonic Theatre Project conducted more than 200 interviews with residents of the town, which form the basis of the play. Sparked by the possibility that Matthew was brutally murdered for his sexuality, “The Laramie Project” is a mediation on how a small town deals with being the epicenter of an incomprehensible crime.

The ensemble includes: TJ Jozsa from Stow; Tyler Hodges from Ashland; Alex Funk from Pataskala; Greg Grimes from Tallmadge; Anthony Satterwhite from Macedonia; Caorl Eutsey from Akron; Nici Romo from Stow; Angel Foster from Akron; April Turner from Cleveland; and Heather Beyer from Tallmadge.

Cuyahoga Falls News Press

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