VCUarts performs story about found family in the midst of aids crisis

The cast of Rent will be performing shows at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts until April 30. Photo courtesy of Zahra Ndirangu

Chloe Hawkins, Spectrum Editor

The VCUarts theater took viewers through a rollercoaster of emotions on the opening night of Rent, said Mackenzie Sheppard, VCU theater performance student.

VCUarts theater presented its spring musical, Rent, on April 21 and will have various showtimes throughout April 30. Rent is about “falling in love, finding your voice and living for today,” according to the VCUarts website.

“It’s so fulfilling to see the cast — half of them are my friends,” Sheppard said. “It’s nice to see them on stage doing what they’re made to do.”

Sheppard is a senior planning to graduate in theater performance this spring, according to Sheppard.

“It’s just a loving community and family within the department,” Sheppard said. “We just love to make art together. Do magic together.” 

Sheppard noted that one of her favorite aspects of the show was the costumes, she said. 

“The costumes were very amazing, very vibrant,” Sheppard said. “I love the way the costume team designed it.” 

Inspiration for the musical’s wardrobe came from the heart of the story, according to costume designer Kasey Brown.

“The whole story is about the bohemian lifestyle,” Brown said. “I decided that every single person needed to look like their art.”

Brown made sure that every piece of clothing was distressed in some way, whether it be painted, embroidered or cut, she said. 

“Almost nothing is right off the rack,” Brown said. “We just ‘art-ed’ everything up.” 

The biggest part of the process of finding the wardrobe for Rent had a lot to do with doing research on the time span it was set in, the ‘90s, Brown said. This show is about the aids crisis in New York City, which was at the time ignored by the U.S. government, she said. 

“There was a lot of research that had to be done,” Brown said. “It was a lot of deep diving and finding these people that they [the government] didn’t want people to see.”

Brown had a hard time choosing which character was her favorite to style, but ultimately she loved styling Roger Davis, Angel Dumott Schunard and Mimi Marquez, she said. 

“I personally love Roger and Mimi’s story, and I always feel like when they’re designed it’s done very wrong — especially Mimi,” Brown said. “I wanted to do her justice.”

Mya Hall, a VCU student double majoring in theater and finance, plays Mimi Marquez. Hall is able to connect with her character Mimi through her afro-latina heritage, she said. 

“Growing up, a bit part of my environment and who I am is the fact that I’m mixed — Black, Dominican and Puerto Rican,” Hall said. “That has really allowed me to connect with this role as she is a latina woman. It’s important that this role is portrayed by a person of color.” 

Hall had to do a lot of background research on her character, Mimi Marquez, she said. Mimi has a unique background story, involving drug abuse and the struggles around moving to New York City to chase her dreams, according to Hall. 

“She has higher hopes and dreams for herself but because of survival and having to take care of herself, she gets into hard things that a lot of people might also connect with,” Hall said. 

Hall’s favorite thing about Mimi’s character is her confidence and how “if she wants something, she goes for it,” she said. This role challenged her to step into this new-found confidence through Mimi, Hall said. 

“It took me a while to embrace that,” Hall said. “Once I did, I really understood who Mimi is.”

Hall was “shook” when she got this lead role, she said. This was her debut at VCU, and she went in thinking she’d be happy being in the ensemble, according to Hall. 

“I was very excited and blessed to have the opportunity to play this role and be surrounded by so many talented people,” Hall said. “Everyone in the cast is so talented.”

A musical’s backbone is the ensemble, consisting of both understudies and swing members, according to VCU theater students Jovan Long and Nicole Boisseau. They are the two swings for Rent.

Both students chose to pursue theater because of their love for performing, they said. This is Long’s first year at VCU and first mainstage show, as he continues to pursue theater after transferring from Germanna community college.

“I don’t want to do something that makes me not want to work everyday,” Long said. “The only thing that brings me joy would be performing.”

Boisseau is a junior at VCU double majoring in theater and psychology at the honors college, she said. With these two majors, she wants to go into drama therapy, which is a form of art therapy that helps people express their emotions through performance, according to Boisseau. 

“I really believe in the power of theater as an art form to really help us express ourselves, and process difficult emotions,” Boisseau said. 

They cover multiple roles in the ensemble as swing members, which includes over eight tracks or songs each, according to Boisseau and Long. There’s a lot of things they must remember at once, like where to be on stage, the correct notes and choreography, they said. 

“There’s so many moving parts,” Boisseau said. “At the same time, it’s really fun for me personally. It’s crazy but it’s a lot of fun to never know what to expect.”

Being a swing member has given both of them an opportunity to not “have to be perfect,” Boisseau said. 

“Doing this has been so freeing because no one is expecting me to be perfect,” Boisseau said. “It’s allowed me to have a lot of fun and take a lot of risks.”

This experience has helped Long improve his singing, thanks to his vocal coach Beth Davis, he said. 

“She definitely helped me be more confident in my voice, and a better listener,” Long said. 

The cast began rehearsal for the show on February 21, according to musical director Desirèe Dabney.

She chose Rent as the spring musical, because it has many different “themes that we need to talk about today,” Dabney said. 

“It’s a challenging show that’s challenging our students to talk about aids, sex, drugs and how that was in the ‘90s,” Dabney said. “And continuing to tell the story of what Jonathan Larson created.” 

A major part of this musical is that it’s unfinished due to Jonathan Larson’s untimely death, caused by an undiagnosed aortic dissection that occurred on January 25, 1996. A lot of Rent is based on Larson’s real-life experiences. The production was nominated for ten Tony Awards in 1996, according to the American theatre wing.

This will be Dabney’s first year as the musical director at VCUarts theater, she said. She is excited for her first production, Dabney said. VCU students can relate to this story in many ways, according to Dabney. 

“Finding who your family is — finding the tribe, and discovering who you are,” Dabney said. 

Performances will take place in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, located at 922 Park Place.

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