Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why We Tell the Story

Today I am approaching the closing show of Once on This Island, where I have had the privilege of playing Erzulie - the goddess of love. This has been unlike any role for me, as this has been unlike any other show for me.  The cast is made up of 14 African American male and females, and is one act long. From the dancing, the costumes, the calypso music, to the story ... it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever taken a part of. The story we tell in Once, has made me reflect on my own life and my own experiences. Where my passion originated from, why I took a break, and why I am back today.

When I was a little girl getting babysat with my best friend after school, our sitter would always let us choose a movie or television program to watch. My go to was a story about a redheaded orphan who found her way into a rich man's home and thus his heart, Annie. From the very first moment I watched this musical, I was captivated. Singing AND acting combined? What was this madness? I fell in love with the songs, singing them every chance I got - singing "Maybe" while roller blading in our unfinished basement, "Tomorrow" at recess, and (my favorite, and most accurate) "It's Hard Knock Life" while mopping the kitchen floor. When I found out my grade school would be putting on their own performance, I was thrilled. I knew it was finally time for me to fill the role I was born to play. However, when it came around to my actual audition, I stood there frozen as the music played behind me and the director sat smiling at me.  I knew I blew it & I would never be the little redhead I dreamt of playing. I got to sing in the Orphan Chorus - a group of us misfit girls who couldn't get cast, who got to sing "It's a Hard Knock Life" directly after intermission. Thought that counts, right?

I didn't do anymore shows for quite some time after that. As I got older though, I did realize that I still wanted to perform. I went to other auditions where I froze as well. I didn't get cast A LOT. It was disheartening, but I knew I was good, and I knew I had to prove it. Finally, I went to an audition for a summer production of Cinderella, where I essentially screamed out the lyrics to "Very Soft Shoes" from Once Upon a Mattress - a song I learned at an acting camp that same summer. It wasn't my greatest vocal performance of all time, but it got me cast in the ensemble. My first show! I was in tears. From then on, auditions became easier - I even got my first lead as the Witch in Into the Woods, Jr. It was an honor to finally be considered a mini local starlet, and without proper vocal training, too! I went on to perform in high school performances, as well. My high school music teacher then set me up with his old vocal teacher, and I became even better. I finally was able to learn notes and how to add a vibrato. My junior year I was honored to play the role of Joy, who's saddened personality did not live up to her name, in yet another production of Cinderella. I even got to play Reno Sweeney in a summer production of Anything Goes - a role in which I had to learn to tap dance. It was singlehandedly the greatest moment of my life, especially since two of my very best friends got to play alongside me as Reno's sidekicks, Billy Crocker and "Snake Eyes" Johnson.

When I went to college, I did perform in show choir one year, and I also had a monologue in The Vagina Monologues, but I wasn't as involved as I used to be. I knew I couldn't make a career out of acting. I wasn't nearly as passionate as my other friends were (so I thought), and I wasn't as good vocally as they were. It wasn't until the winter of last year that I decided I wanted to audition for Grease at the Erie Playhouse. I knew I wanted to get back into theater, and what better way than with the most familiar show in the world? I really wanted the role of Rizzo, but wrote that I would take anything as long as I could get into a Main Stage production at the Playhouse. When I went to see the cast list and saw I was cast as Jan, I nearly sobbed. I was ecstatic. I didn't really know my cast mates too well, but I was familiar with their talent and couldn't believe I was getting to share the stage with them.

I made some GREAT friends in Grease. My Pink Ladies became some of my closest friends, and I even spent many nights barhopping and getting tattoos with a few of the boys! The experience kind of developed me. It made me realize what I loved, what I didn't love, who my friends were, and who they weren't. It was truly a life changing opportunity for me. It let people in the community get familiar with me again. Most importantly, it let me get familiar with me again. I found my voice, quite literally, and discovered my passion once again.

At first I wasn't going to audition for Once on This Island. I didn't have a song picked out, although my friend kept insisting I sing "White Boys" from Hair. He thought it was accurate and would display my range for the part we thought I should be going for, Asaka, Mother of the Earth. Even though I had seen a production of Once before, I only knew Asaka's song "Mama Will Provide." I remember my cast mates in Grease telling me I would be perfect for that role as well. I decided at 4:30 pm the last day of auditions that I was going at 6pm to try out, but ONLY if the music store had the Hair sheet music. Well, I walked in and searched hard for the book, but no such luck. I sighed, I wasn't auditioning. As soon as I was about to walk out, something caught me eye. It was the accompaniment book for Beyoncé's album "4." It was kind of fate. I know every song in that album from front to back. I knew immediately I was auditioning that night, and I was going to sing "1+1" from my Beyoncé book.

As far as auditions go, I know I nailed it - even if the directors didn't think so. The way that song came out of my mouth didn't even feel or sound like my voice, but I took it. It was beautiful. I was finally cast as Ezrulie, who I wasn't quite familiar with but I was absolutely going to accept the role. Her big song, "Part of the Human Heart" is a love ballad - it was the perfect fit for someone who sang a slow Beyoncé song for her audition. I was cast by that song. A song I didn't even know I was going to sing until a few short hours before my audition!

I have enjoyed this show so much. The people are so talented and such an incredible asset to the
theater community. The woman who plays the lead, Ti Moune is beautiful and is the most naturally gifted person I have ever had the blessing of sharing a stage with. Asaka - if I had gotten that role, I would have never been able to live up to the way she plays it. Such grace, such talent, and she truly embodies the role of Mother. Our Agwe, God of Water, who wasn't in our original casting, took over the role with kindness, and I could not think of a better portrayal. He is strong, vibrant, and a leader. The Demon of Death, Papa Ge, is played by a young man who truly took a role and ran with it. He is also a natural talent, especially in his energetic and passionate dancing. Our Daniel and Andrea play their roles beautifully, too. Andrea is a beautiful dancer who I could watch all day and still not be able to put in half the love she does. Our Mama and Ton-Ton, though still young, play elderly and nurturing parents quite well. I have left the show many times convinced they were really Ti Moune's parents. We have four strong chorus girls who are incredible dancers. Many of them have never been in a show before, but could provide enough talent to put on their own production!

The most impressive cast member in this show however, is the beautiful 10 year old girl who plays the role of little Ti Moune. She plays the role with such grace. Backstage she is just another goofy girl, who sends our Stage Manager into a conniption every time she is seconds away from missing her cue. The second she gets on stage, she quickly becomes her character - a curious little girl, who studies the world and wants to know everything about it. She is the star I wanted to be when I was her age, and watching her has truly been one of my greatest privileges.

Though I will never play the role of Annie (unless someone someday does an all adult version, where geriatrics play a huge role for Daddy Warbucks, and Miss Hannigan sips gin on stage for the sole purpose of staying alive), I will always think of it as the show that got me started. It gave me a feel for singing and acting, and has quite literally set the stage for me to want to do something more with this talent. I have been given a gift from God, a gift I hope to use for many, many more years to come.

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