Fact in the fiction: Teatro de Yale performs ‘21 Chump Street’
Yale’s performance of Lin Manuel Miranda’s ‘21 Chump Street’ tackled inequality of policing in America in the 15-minute musical format.
Cody Skinner, Contributing Photographer
This past weekend Teatro de Yale performed Lin Manuel Miranda’s 15-minute musical about love, drugs and an undercover police officer.
From Nov. 9 to 11, “21 Chump Street” was performed in the Saybrook Underbrook by Yale undergraduates and directed by Montserrat Rodriguez ’25. The show, comprising five songs, had a six-person cast including Benjamin Jimenez ’26, Andrik Garcia ’25, Isabella Walther-Meade ’25, Maia Nehme ’27, Daniela Garcia ’25 and Erick Lopez ’24. Rodriguez filled in for Walther-Meade’s character, Naomi.
“I like to call it a portmanteau of hip-hop and operetta, so hip-hoperetta,” said Zeph Siebler ’26, the show’s musical director. “It’s very short and similar to Hamilton, it’s a hip-hop tradition within musical theater. It’s a nice short piece. There aren’t many pieces in musical theater or the rap story canon that are of this nice 15-minute digestible size, and I’ve really been liking the challenge of working on it and it having a really surprising emotional impact.”
Despite its deceptively modest runtime, the show covers the complete true story of then-Florida high school senior Justin Laboy’s arrest in 2011. Laboy was played by Jimenez. In the production, Laboy fell in love with a transfer student in two of his classes named Naomi Rodriguez. When Naomi asked Justin for marijuana, Justin, who had never smoked nor purchased the drug, went out of his way to acquire it for her.
In the show, Naomi, who turned out to be an undercover cop, pressured Justin to sell her the cannabis and promptly arrested him over the felony charge of selling drugs on school property. Justin was one of the dozens of students ensnared by the local high school undercover drug operation.
Zeph Siebler adapted the hip-hop-inspired score of the original “21 Chump Street” to fit the instruments and talents available for Yale’s production more aptly.
Regarding the song “Cousin,” he said that, “there are a lot of electronic effects that are difficult to port over to our theater because we don’t have a synthesizer, and our drums are acoustic. So in order to make that song work, we took it from this 90s hip-hop track, which worked well for the original production, to a more uptempo, garage band rock number.”
A live band, conducted by Siebler, played alongside the performances and included a pianist, guitarist, bassist and drummer.
Accompanying the instrumentals, each of the six cast members took to the stage for singing roles in the show’s five songs — each fast-paced, dense and emotional.
“[Siebler] talked about how we would take the original cast recording and be a little bit different with it, especially vocally,” Jimenez said. He said that Siebler told him, “This was what was done in the original production, but you don’t have to be bound by that. We’re doing our own show.”
The preparation for the show included auditions in mid-September and biweekly rehearsals leading up to the debut. Choreography director Paloma Vigil ’25, who is also an Arts editor for the News, worked with cast members on their dances, while Sophia Perez ’27 operated as stage manager behind the curtain.
The production was sponsored by Teatro de Yale, a “currently informal group” focused on promoting Latine involvement in theater, Rodriguez said. In the fall semester of 2022, Teatro debuted “In the Heights,” another Lin-Manuel Miranda-written play about a series of stories about the Latine community in Washington Heights. In the spring semester of 2023, Teatro showcased “Stand and Deliver,” a drama about Latin American perseverance.
Director Montserrat Rodriguez said that she and Erick Lopez, the producer of the show, were inspired by the Teatro de Yale community after the success of the group’s prior two performances to continue Teatro’s mission by bringing another narrative about a Latine community to Yale’s stages.
“Going into the process, I wanted the focus of this show to be on how we had a Latine cast and how it’s for Latine students,” Rodriguez said. “Of course, it’s not like, ‘if you’re not Latine, you can’t audition or be a part of it.’ It’s just a space where Latines can be the main characters.”
In a testament to the efforts of those behind the show, tickets for “21 Chump Street” almost sold out. Teatro’s previous two shows sold out completely, demonstrating the demand on Yale’s campus for future Teatro de Yale performances.
The story “21 Chump Street” is based on an episode of “This American Life” — a radio program that primarily broadcasts journalistic nonfiction.