Under the bright lights of the Ira Aldridge stage, the students of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts bring their artistry back to the spotlight after a two-year coronavirus hiatus. Notable not only because this is the first college of fine arts production under their new name: The Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, but also because it is the first ever all-Black production of “Heathers: The Musical,” led by sophomores Clarianna Swaggard and Ethan Hart.
This production achieved a lot of firsts for Howard University. Just ahead of their final rehearsals before opening night, The Hilltop had the opportunity to speak with the cast and crew as well as attend opening night.
The story of “Heathers: The Musical” follows the lives of teens in the 1980s. Despite its colorful nature and musical grounding, the story delves into the heavy subjects of teen suicide, sexual assault and personal identity. What sets this student production apart from the original musical by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy is that this depiction was approached through “a Black lens,” explained Malachi Alexander, a senior BFA musical theater major and dance minor from Detroit, Michigan who played the character Kurt Kelly in the show.
“It’s not normal to see an all-Black cast of anything, especially for shows like this,” they expressed. “However, the themes of the show can resonate with the Black community, these people are very real…so seeing that, especially from our people by our people, is reason enough to be proud of this show.”
The show manages to shed light on the truths about coming of age, which is why the representation of this production is “very real” and matters to Black audiences.
The production, which opened on Wednesday, Sept. 27, began with an enthusiastically engaged crowd and ended with a roaring standing ovation from the attendees. The performers and coordinators would execute again for three more nights and a matinee. Upon entering the theater, a digital playbill was displayed to get to know the names and faces behind the art.
Powerhouse performances such as Sunday Coleman’s vocal reign of a “Kindergarten Boyfriend” as Martha Dunnstock, or Courtnee’ Hood’s cathartic arrangement of “Lifeboat” as Heather Mcnamara captivated audiences. The overwhelming fan favorites included Clarianna Swggard’s “Dead Girl Walking” and Madison Belo’s illuminating stage presence in the sassy and energetic “Candy Store.” Performances like “Beautiful” and “My Dead Gay Son” by the entire cast filled the atmosphere with buzz and excitement as they opened each act. On opening night, the Ira Aldridge Theater was full, front to back, with audiences from near and far. By Thursday, every show was sold out.
“I’ve had people [direct message] me saying that they are traveling from North Carolina, from Washington state, bought plane tickets and train tickets because they’ve never seen art so Black,” said Assistant Director Myeves Lucien when asked about the inevitable pressure of the production. “It’s more than just your roommate and your friends and your mom who might come see it… it’s scary, but I also know that if anybody can do it, it’s [the cast].”
Lucien, a sophomore acting major and secondary education minor from Howard County, Maryland, also served as the social media manager, co-costume designer, props master, as well as multiple other roles throughout the process, as pointed out by Coutnee’ Hood and Ethan Hart, who played Jason “J.D” Dean in the show. Throughout the process, Lucien ran an Instagram and TikTok account dedicated to the cast and crew. The TikTok account amassed over 14,500 followers and over 425,000 likes come opening night. Their most viral TikTok, reaching over 560,000 views by opening night, featured various cast members singing a section from the infamous “Candy Store,” prompting viewers to guess which member plays the character Heather Chandler. That video, among others, gave this production a public and social reputation, and an edge that previous productions hadn’t garnered.
“I didn’t expect the videos to blow up by the first one… it was a huge aspect of the marketing,” said Lucien. Prospective audiences had the chance to fall in love with the social media presence and charisma of the team weeks in advance. The work for Lucien didn’t end on opening night, she kept up momentum as she was seen grabbing photos and video clips for more social media content as soon as the final bow was complete.
Although the Heathers team experienced big fun throughout the rehearsal process, “devoted” would aptly describe this group of students. To say that the cast was dedicated to the art while fulfilling their duties as full-time students would be an understatement, as explained by Courtnee’ Hood, a sophomore BFA musical theater major.
“Mixed with school, homework and time to eat and sleep and breathe… we had no time,” Hood explained. Amidst a few 13-hour rehearsal days, a college workload and other necessities outside of the production, the performers spent ample time preparing for the sold-out spectacle. The show’s male lead, Ethan Hart, a sophomore BFA musical theater major and playwriting minor from Katy, Texas, credited people like Lucien, their stage crew, the ensemble and lead Clarianna Swaggard, for keeping him afloat throughout the process.
“Our lead, Clarianna, does an amazing job,” he said. “She’s like the soul of the production and the ensemble held it down.” For Hart, and many of the cast members, Howard’s “Heathers: The Musical” was a student production debut.
The show was also able to represent the diversity of skills of students across many educational disciplines. Unlike most school-sponsored productions, the show was open for anyone in any major to participate. With the openness and inclusivity of the casting call, which was posted back in June, business and STEM majors alike joined forces with students from the college of fine arts to showcase their range on the stage. This is the case for two of the three Heathers, Heather Duke, played by Malana Baez and the Heather Chandler played by Madison Belo, a sophomore Legal Communications major and French minor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Baez, a sophomore biology major and chemistry minor from Moreno, California, has loved this particular musical since she was in middle school.
“I have friends who have never even been inside of [college of fine arts] before,” Baez said, but bridging the gap between fine arts and other schools was a necessity as “everyone loves to see people perform.” Other students such as ensemble Cynalah Stephenson, Cheridan Danzy and assistant stage manager Yasmine Mwongozi crossed over to the fine arts from their majors in business administration, health science and nursing respectively. “Heathers: The Musical” was an opportunity to branch out across their disciplines to do what they love.
You can keep up with “Heathers: The Musical” and future student productions on Instagram.
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee