Andre Benjamin's 'Class of 3000' goes Live

Alliance Children's Theatre adapts animated Cartoon Network series

Something's going on. Something curious. Behind a closed door down an otherwise hushed third-floor hallway at one end of the Woodruff Arts Center — the Symphony Hall end — something's rumbling through the walls.

It's familiar but it's hard to pin down. Funk? Hip-hop? OutKast?

The ATL can be such a many splendored, absurdly surprising, nothing-like-ya-thunk-it thing. So when you open the studio door and find Andre Benjamin — aka Andre 3000, half of the home-grown, all-time-best-selling hip-hop duo OutKast — watching a rehearsal of the Alliance Children's Theatre adaptation of the animated series he produced and scored for the Cartoon Network ... well, you go with it.

"I just kind of float to wherever the wind is taking me and see what's next," said Benjamin, seated at a folding table dressed in pieces of his own clothing line — plaid jacket, blue washed-corduroy trousers, brown bespoke shoes.

"It's kind of like an exciting ride that way," he continued. "I hardly ever plan. Anything I'm into, it never starts from, 'This is a great business, let's do this.' It starts from, 'Hey, this would be cool.' "

His reaction when he heard the Alliance wanted to make a live-action children's play out of "Class of 3000," based in part on his growing up and living in Atlanta: "Perfect."

Opening this weekend and running through March 29, "Class of 3000 Live" is the kind of only-in-Atlanta collision of unlikely institutions that has become almost commonplace.

Last season, Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, Benjamin's musical partner, teamed with the Atlanta Ballet for "Big," a production that merged Patton's raps with Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata."

Three years earlier, the ballet performed "Shed Your Skin — The Indigo Girls Project," which put its dancers on stage with Atlanta's Grammy-winning folk rock twosome of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers.

"You have to look at what your community is, and how you can partner with what's right here that's rich and worthwhile," said director Rosemary Newcott. "It's a no-brainer."

Biography with a beat

"Class of 3000" is as Atlanta-centric as Benjamin, whose childhood at one point straddled the rough Bankhead neighborhood where he lived and the Buckhead middle school he attended.

It centers on two characters. Sunny Bridges is a superstar musician who returns to his hometown after his passion for performing has been beaten down by the business. Lil' D is a short, talented, overconfident, trouble-finding 12-year-old.

"Both of them are just younger and older versions of me," the 33-year-old Benjamin said.

Other characters — a diverse, artistic bunch whose backgrounds range from East Indian to white Buckhead rich — mirrors Benjamin's wide circle of friends while at Sutton Middle School, near Chastain Park. He went there in the late '80s through a program that bused kids from predominantly black neighborhoods to schools in mostly white parts of town. The result was an almost textbook diversity that's re-created for "Class."

"Usually you see shows try to create that forcefully. But this is really how it was," Benjamin said. "People actually got along. You had the white guys listening to rap. I'm skateboarding and listening to rock music I never thought of. I learned a lot that I probably wouldn't have learned if I was at a school in my neighborhood."

Benjamin and Patton's Atlanta roots were central to the music they started making right after high school. OutKast's huge recording success culminated in 2003 with the double album "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below," essentially two solo albums, with "The Love Below" being Benjamin's funkier, jazzier contribution. It sold more than 5 million copies, spawned the hit single "Hey Ya!" and won a Grammy for Album of the Year.

A Cartoon Network executive loved "The Love Below" so much he wanted to create an animated series from it. Benjamin balked at transforming the album into a cartoon, but helped develop another idea based on his life and wrote its original music.

His own favorite TV cartoons as a kid: "Fat Albert" and the "Peanuts" specials.

"I wanted the funky look of 'Fat Albert,' but musically I was loving what Vince Guaraldi did with 'Peanuts,' " he said. "I wanted kids to be able to listen to real music. I wanted to put the influence of jazz, blues and funk into it so hopefully they would grow up and remember these songs."

Message and memories

The series, which spawned a CD, debuted on Nov. 3, 2006. The idea for a play came not long afterward. Alliance artistic director Susan Booth was invited with her daughter by another Cartoon Network executive to a premiere party at the Fox Theater.

"Aside from being knocked out by the musicality and innovation of it, I just loved its core message that the arts are a means to self-expression that everyone can access — and with which everyone will thrive," Booth said. "Big fat bonus points — Andre Benjamin as a world-class musician who makes Atlanta his home. The whole thing seemed too perfect not to work."

The cartoon series lasted only a season, but the Alliance moved ahead. Newcott said adapting a cartoon for the stage was relatively easy, with certain compromises. "You can't have people flying through the air in a bubble," she said. But it was Benjamin's style that translated best to kids' theater.

"There's a relaxed energy and an openness to him," she said. "You need to have that open quality when you perform for children. Complicated and hidden agendas don't work."

She asked Benjamin, who has acted in several movies and TV shows, if he wanted to play Sunny (he voiced the character in the cartoon). But he couldn't fit it into his schedule.

Benjamin did attend a workshop and approved the cast. Sunny is played by Sinatra Onyewuchi, 22, a Wright State college student who graduated from Pebblebrook High School, a rival of Tri-Cities, where Benjamin went. He told Benjamin they'd actually met once in the mid-1990s. The car Benjamin and Patton were driving one night broke down near Six Flags, near where Onyewuchi lived. His mother and brother picked the pair up and brought them back to their trailer park to wait for a ride.

Benjamin couldn't remember the night, but said he didn't remember much from those early, high-flying days. He smiled.

"I was still smoking," he allowed.

He's a different guy now, he said. He's eager to see how kids react inside the theater. He'll be there opening night.

"I'm excited, as an adult," he said. "I hope it's something they remember."

ON STAGE

"Class of 3000 Live." Two shows each Saturday and Sunday through March 29 (first show begins at 1 p.m.; second time varies from 3 to 4 p.m.; check Web site). $20-$35. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-5000; www.alliancetheatre.org

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.