After the death of Sister Rose, a group of her former students returns to their Harlem neighborhood to pay respects. However, a problem arises — her body has been stolen.
This is the story of “Our Lady of 121st Street,” a play presented by the College of William and Mary’s Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance from Feb. 21-24.
Production director and professor Francis Tanglao Aguas said the production is about the idea of a created family.
“These fractured, delicate people who have existed on the fringes of society have created a family for themselves created by this nun, who’s imperfect. She’s an alcoholic,” Aguas said. “Despite their un-belonging to the middle-class, to America, they’re still Americans, they still deserve a family.”
Even with their difficult lives and aggressive behaviors, Aguas said the characters still crave love and a sense of belonging.
“Its a slice of life in a diverse community very unlike Williamsburg,” Aguas said. “So for those of us who do come from places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, this is a little venture into life outside of Williamsburg.”
Aguas said he made sure the cast feels like Harlem, and almost canceled production because he didn’t want to put on the play without a diverse cast.
“It’s always better if the stories reflect the people you want to include,” Aguas said. “With plays like ‘Our Lady of 121st Street,’ you issue out (casting) calls that all are welcome.”
Aguas said this open casting call attracted new and veteran actors alike. Two first-time actors in the play are Adia Campos, playing “Nasty” Norca, and Francis Edemobi, playing Walter, known as“Rooftop.” Campos said she decided to try out for the play because she heard they were looking for more people of color.
“So I was like ‘Well, I’m a person of color, why not,’ ” Campos said.
“Similar to (Campos) I heard there was a role for an African-American male, and there was nobody trying out for that role — at least the people trying out were white males, so that’s really what made me try out was there was an opportunity,” Edemobi said.
Aguas said the play is different thanother productions put on in the area.
“I think from the get-go, any urban, edgy, diverse show is very suspect in very white, affluent Williamsburg — plainly speaking,” Aguas said. “I have this experience that I put on plays that were very ‘Asian’ and ‘excotic’ and those were very well received, but every time we put on something raw and pulsating and real there’s always trepidation.
“Maybe what needs to diversity is the theatre-going audience — more people watch film every day, but theatre is like golf and tennis to many — its this very privileged space. This play is about the unprivileged, their story is being told in a very privileged space.”
Aguas said he hopes audiences see through the production that everyone wants and deserves respect.
“(The characters) are imperfect people,” Aguas said. “They might have smaller houses, they might have more fractured families, but they’re human. They’re Americans.”
The actors themselves took away this lesson as well.
Campos said she struggled with her character because Norca is a person she hated at first. However, she said she still wanted to create a sense of empathy for her.
“Every character in the show deserves compassion, even though some of them are very unlikeable,” Campos said. “It was interesting to play someone I don’t really identify with, but to search for the humanity in the character.”
“Through all the mess and craziness of the characters and the play you’re still able to find this humanistic factor which is love, hate, anger — there's this idea of feeling unloved,” Edemobi said. “In all the characters there’s this sense of feeling loved and the love they got from Sister Rose.”
Want to attend?
“Our Lady of 121st Street” will have performances at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21, 22, 23; 2 p.m. Feb. 24. Kimball Theater on 428 W. Duke of Gloucester St. Tickets, $7-$15, free for William and Mary students, can be purchased by calling 221-2674 or at wm.edu/offices/boxoffice.
Note: this show is recommended for audiences 18 years and older.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.