In the third installment of “Talk in the Town,” Mag’s one-of-a-kind podcast, reporters Camara Aaron and Nyeda Sam probe the Yale Dramat’s production of Spring Awakening and the grassroots show Yale students of color put up in reaction to it.
Cast of Spring Arising singing “Mama Who Bore Me” from the musical, Spring Awakening.
When Alejandro Campillo returned for their second year at Yale, they knew they wanted to perform in another show. Alejandro, known as Ale on campus, identifies as a transgender non-binary person, and uses they/them/theirs pronouns.
Their first year, they joined Shades, an acapella group. And, they starred in the musical, In the Heights. It was their first time doing musical theater, but they scored a role as Usnavi, the lead. So, this September, it was no question they would audition for something. They were thrilled to see the Dramat would be putting on a production of Spring Awakening.
The characters in Spring Awakening are all white. But, Ale was hopeful that there would be a space for them seeing as they are a Latinx person.
Ale Campillo: On the casting sheet, it said, “We’re gonna be color-conscious and not color-blind.” To me, that meant that they were gonna actively put POC [people of color] in roles and really think about what it meant to redefine the characters now that they are racialized. And then also, that it would be open to gender non-binary and trans people.
They got a callback for the parts they’d auditioned for—Moritz and Marta, a male character and a female character. But, they were offered a role they had some qualms with.
Ale Campillo: I was offered the part of Ernst, which is like the gay guy in the show and I definitely felt just a little bit weird ‘cause I was like I never expressed interest in this part. It felt a bit tokenizing, I would say. Especially, because I put myself in a vulnerable place to present feminine.
Ale felt that the femininity of their presentation had been misinterpreted, so they rejected the role and made their peace with the show. But, they were offered another part—this time for a minor female character. As a femme transperson, Ale felt the role wouldn’t do justice to their identity.
Ale Campillo: I ended up deciding that as a transperson, especially as a femme transperson– like that’s so optically jarring on stage– that if I was to play a character– the part they offered me was a small role that didn’t have the agency to show their full humanity– I was like if I’m the only one, I’m not sure.
Ale decided that they weren’t going to be part of Spring Awakening and that they’d put on a show themself. They’d call it: Spring Arising.
I’m Nyeda Sam. And I’m Camara Aaron. And you’re listening to Talk in the Town, from the Yale Daily News Magazine.
Ale isn’t the first Yalie from an underrepresented group to be unhappy with Yale theater. In 2015, a white woman was cast in the musical Wild Party in the role that’s usually played by a Black man. The casting provoked backlash from the Yale community and the role was recast. According to YDN coverage at the time, the Dramat considered the miscasting a failure of outreach to Black performers.
Ale thinks some of the problem has to do with how auditions work at Yale:
Ale Campillo: Basically what happens is that you get to Yale and in the first two or three days, you have to start auditioning for shows. I find that not welcoming, especially for people who have never tried theatre before, hence people of color, hence trans people, hence all these communities that are on stage.
If it weren’t for a friend, they say they never would have auditioned for In the Heights their first year. They may not have gotten involved with theater at all. Two of first-years we spoke to that were involved with Spring Arising shared Ale’s experience. They didn’t hear about casting until it was too late, according to Emily Li.
Emily Li: If you’re not reached out to, you’re not going to hear about it. It’s almost like, it’s like exclusive.
Spring Arising would be different. Because the show was organized later in the semester, first-years could get involved. And the show would specifically highlight POC and trans performers using music from across musical theatre and not just from Spring Awakening.
Sophie Hall is one of the first-years featured in the production. For her, the show wasn’t a protest.
Sophie Hall: Nobody was protesting Spring Awakening. We were saying that-
Ale Campillo: Just look at this!
Sophie Hall: We want fair casting and this is something that is showing what fair casting could do and how much more powerful and more diverse and how many more people we could reach through theatre if people looked up and saw people that looked like them on stage.
Spring Arising was a way for everyone to feel included, especially since the organizers felt that Yale theatre was not a place where that happened. To Madi Cupp-Enyard, a junior that helped Ale organize, it was quite the opposite.
Madi Cupp-Enyard: My experience at Yale, along with many of my friends, has been observing the role of systemic racism and transphobia in many of our microcosmic communities, but especially, in theatre and that’s a community in which I primarily focus.
Lola, another junior and organizer of Spring Arising, echoed Madi’s sentiments. They noticed a worrying trend with Dramat shows and castings.
Lola Hourihane: Often traditionally white shows or race neutral shows that are cast as white like Spring Awakening, when those shows cast POC and trans folks, they’re directed in such a way that the performer’s identities are ignored or raised or considered not relevant to the storyline and that’s if POC and trans folks are cast at all.
Ale knew Lola and Madi personally through experiences with Yale theatre and approached them to ask for their assistance with the production. Lola and Madi helped with the logistics and the vision of the performance.
As a team, the three began reaching out to performers. They used many methods to communicate, but key was outreach through the cultural centers, which Ale used to reach communities that are often underrepresented in Yale Theatre.
As Ale developed their team of performers, sophomore Noelle Mercer was an easy choice. As one of Ale’s closest friends at Yale and their suitemate, she had heard the strains of what would become Spring Arising from the very beginning.
Noelle Mercer: Half of me was like, “Omigosh! Yes! Do it! This would be so amazing and so incredible! How can I be involved? Like, let’s do it! Come on! Let’s… fuck shit up!” You know! But then, the other half of me was like, “Omigosh, this is going to be not good for the Dramat.”
Noelle works for the Dramat as their outreach coordinator. The role is new and Noelle is the first person to serve in it for a full-year term. It was created soon after the Wild Party controversy and Noelle says her role is about making Yale’s theater scene more accessible to students who wouldn’t necessarily know how to get involved.
Noelle Mercer: The Yale theatre community is awesome and it’s vibrant and it’s great, but it’s so incredibly insular.
Before Spring Awakening, Noelle organized a workshop to prepare actors for the audition process. But, after that, there was not much formal outreach.
Noelle Mercer: We figured, we knew that people were going to come out and audition. Looking back, I wish we had done more.
15 performers of color auditioned; three were cast.
Joseph Bosco was the producer for Spring Awakening. He heard about Spring Arising pretty early, and organized a meeting between both productions.
Joseph Bosco: I would characterize it as tense at the beginning, but then, once we kind of talked through where we were coming from, talked through their goals and our goals as a production, we were like we’re two teams working towards the same goal.
That shared goal was to support their teams in making theatre that spoke to and encouraged the wider Yale community.
Joseph Bosco: At the end of it, we all came out I think pretty satisfied and pretty optimistic for our processes.
Joseph described the relationship between the two shows as a collaboration. He even offered to share some of the professional designers hired by the Dramat with the other cast. But ultimately, the shows remained pretty separate.
Joseph Bosco: Ya, so I think, initially, we were perhaps a bit more optimistic about, you know, how much we could collaborate, but then we realized that we were in tech while they were in tech and there actually wasn’t that much overlap between the two teams.
So, though Noelle was between two worlds as Ale’s friend and as a member of the Dramat Board, the experience was not particularly tense. About a week before Spring Arising went up, a performer dropped out of the show. Ale offered the role to Noelle.
Noelle Mercer: When Ale approached me, I was like, “Okay, fine. I’m going to do it.” Because I really wanted to. As an actor of color, a performer of color, seeing all those beautiful faces, all those people that were going to be involved, I was like, “How could I not? How could I deprive myself of a chance to sing on stage with these amazing people?”
She sang “Take Me or Leave Me”, a duet from the musical Rent.
Noelle Mercer and fellow performer singing “Take Me or Leave Me.”
On November 2 and 3, Spring Arising went up in the Hopper Cabaret. 25 trans performers and performers of color gathered on stage, performing songs across the American musical theatre canon.
Rayo Oyeyemi and Ale Campillo singing “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” from the musical, Spring Awakening.
Junior Rayo Oyeyemi dueted with Ale on “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” from Spring Awakening. Before she performed, Rayo addressed the audience.
Rayo Oyeyemi: I think for us, that even though, we are people or color, even though we might be people of different genders from the people who wrote this music or originally sang this music, we know these feelings. We are these people. We can be these people on any stage or a street corner, in this Hopper Cab, so I think that’s the lesson of this whole show. We can be anything we want, because we are.
To close the show, all the performers gathered on stage to sing “Song of Purple Summer”, the final song from Spring Awakening.
Noelle Mercer: I think Spring Arising was like, “Look! Look at how profound and inspiring this music and this story becomes when you put these types of bodies on stage! And it’s not hard. It’s actually quite easy to do.”
Four days later, Ale watched Spring Awakening, the show they had auditioned for two months earlier. They were impressed by the performances, but overall, disappointed.
Ale Campillo: I couldn’t help but the whole time not be able to fully connect, based on the fact that I had organized Spring Arising and seeing all these beautiful faces crossing different color and crossing different gender and like reflected. And when I looked at that stage, I didn’t see that and I just felt, it felt very irrelevant to watch this show. I think the show was very good. I just was really desperately wanting someone that I could connect to on like an optical level, like I’m you and you’re me and I felt that disconnect.
But, Ale remains hopeful Yale theatre in the wake of Spring Arising.
Ale Campillo: I’m optimistic for the future and that’s why we sing the song “Purple Summer” for our finish, because the future is gonna be key.
Spring Arising’s singing “Song of Purple Summer” from the musical, Spring Awakening.
From YDN Mag, this is Nyeda Sam and this is Camara Aaron. Thank you for listening.