Bright Future: Natchez native accepted in prestigious school

Published 12:32am Wednesday, June 19, 2013

By April Garon

NATCHEZ —Roderick Whitley got the nickname “Mississippi” his first week living in New York City.

“I was really catching it,” Whitley said.

The Natchez native was one of the few students worldwide accepted into the graduate musical theatre-writing program last year at New York University’s Tisch School of Performing Arts.

April Garon / The Natchez Democrat — Roderick Whitley practices on the piano in between lessons Thursday at Natchez Little Theatre’s Summer Youth Workshop. Whitley is a graduate musical theatre writing student at New York University’s Tisch School of Performing Arts.
April Garon / The Natchez Democrat — Roderick Whitley practices on the piano in between lessons Thursday at Natchez Little Theatre’s Summer Youth Workshop. Whitley is a graduate musical theatre writing student at New York University’s Tisch School of Performing Arts.

Administrators told Whitley he was the first Mississippian ever accepted into the rigorous program.

“It is intense, they squeeze as much as possible into two years,” Whitley said. “I had to learn to not wear emotions on my sleeve and grow a thick skin my first year.”

Whitley has not left his hometown permanently for the bright lights of the city, however — the Alcorn State University music education alumnus is spending part of the summer as co-music director of the Natchez Little Theatre’s summer youth workshop.

“This is where I got it all from,” Whitley said. “If people didn’t take out the time with me when I was young, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Working with children is a passion for Whitley, a former kindgergarten music teacher at Susie B. West Primary School.

“Kids are so eager to learn,” Whitley said. “They are like little sponges; they soak it in so fast.”

Whitley was accepted at Tisch in 2009 after graduating from Alcorn, but personal matters held him back.

“My father died, and I didn’t feel like going,” Whitley said.

Whitley said he enjoyed teaching music education, but his dream didn’t fade.

“I thought, if I don’t do this, it’s going to nag me for the rest of my life,” Whitley said.

Last year he contacted Tisch and discovered he would be given a full scholarship to attend the program.

The news thrilled Whitley, but he said leaving his hometown was bittersweet.

“It was hard, but sometimes you have to go out and better yourself. I knew I would come back.”

Whitley will return to New York later this month to complete his graduate studies.

Many avenues lay ahead for the composer and lyricist.

Whitley said he hopes to one day see his work performed on Broadway.

“I want to get into projects with collaborators and work on cabaret songs and skits,” Whitley said. “And with my education background, I have a lot of options.”

One thing is certain about his future — he will always come back to Natchez.

“It’s never been a question that I would return, it’s an obligation to help your hometown,” Whitley said. “Maybe it’s a Southern thing.”