Twice now, the curtain has fallen on Aaliyah Smith before she’s even had a chance to take the stage.
In March, the Neshannock High School senior was to have played the role of Helene in the school musical “Sweet Charity.” The show's three-day run was cancelled when COVID-19 came to town.
Next month, Smith was to have flown to Mobile, Alabama, for two weeks of events leading up to the 63rd National Distinguished Young Women Finals. Her ticket to that had been punched last summer when she earned the title of 2020 Pennsylvania Distinguished Young Woman, not long after she’d won the county-level competition as well.
However, with the coronavirus still a threat and its resultant social distancing mandates still in place, the plug also has been pulled on the national get-together.
And yet, the show must go on -- just online, instead of on stage.
Smith and 49 other state winners now will compete for $100,000 in scholarships via conference calls and video recordings.
“It definitely was a disappointment,” Smith said of learning of the format change. “I was really looking forward to getting to go and meeting everybody.
“But everything is going to work out for a reason.”
Contestants compete at the national level in the same five categories -- Scholarship, Interview, Self-Expression, Talent and Fitness -- as they did at their state and local events. This year, though, the interview and self-expression portions of the program will take place via Zoom, according to national executive director Kendra Haskins, while the traditional onstage talent and fitness performances will be recordings submitted by each national finalist.
Smith anticipates the conference call approach may prove a bit more challenging than the usual face-to-face experience.
“When you’re actually face to face with people, you can kind of read how you’re doing with the whole body language aspect of it,” she said. “I won’t be able to see how they’re reacting to what I’m saying. So that’s kind of making me a little bit nervous.”
On the other hand, there may be an advantage to presenting recorded talent and fitness performances as opposed to doing them live on stage.
“This will give me a chance to keep trying until I get it perfect,” said Smith, who won the Fitness and Scholarship awards at the state event. “But it will also give everybody else that chance. So I don’t know that it’s really helping much.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be finding a venue to accomodate efforts that normally unfold across a spacious theatrical stage. In Smith's case, that entails a lyrical dance presentation to "Heal" by Tom Odell.
“I’m lucky enough that I have a living room that is large enough that I would probably be able to do my routine for the most part,” Smith said. “But if they do end up lifting the social distancing around the beginning of May, I’ll probably be able to go to my dance studio and have one of my teachers come and film me doing it there. That would probably be the best option.”
Looking further down the road, the daughter of JaVarn O’Neal and Alissa Smith-Sumner is scheduled to head for the University of Pittsburgh this fall, where she will be enrolled in the Honors College and majoring in chemistry.
In the meantime, she concedes that competing in the national event online remains a better option than canceling it. But it won’t be the same.
“It was going to be two great weeks,” she said. “I’m very upset that I don’t get to go down there for that.”
Still up in the air is the fate of the local Distinguished Young Women event, traditionally held in late May. Twenty-eight county high school juniors are scheduled to participate in the program, which chairperson Rosanne Palladino already has postponed with hopes of rescheduling.
“We have a couple tentative dates,” she said. “I’m going to try to get this in. It’s not fair to the kids.”
Palladino hasn’t ruled out doing the event online, as the national organization is doing, but observed “they have to put 50 girls on planes and fly them to Alabama. We don’t have to do that, so we’re a little more flexible.”
“If we have to, we will go that way,” she added, “but I’ve talked to some parents, and they don’t like that idea. They want to see their kid on stage. I can understand that.”