What's New on the Rialto
Hair's "White Boys" Trio:
Sasha Allen, Nicole Lewis and Saycon SengblohBy Beth Herstein
Hair's success is not only due to director Diane Paulus and the rest of the behind-the-scenes creative team, but to the energetic cast which sings, dances and engages the audience enthusiastically throughout the show. Will Swenson and Gavin Creel head the cast as the leaders of a tribe of hippies who spend their days and nights in 1967 Central Park. The rest of the Tribe is also integral. I recently sat down with three engaging members of the TribeSasha Allen, who, as Dionne, opens the show with the song "Aquarius," and Nicole Lewis and Saycon Sengbloh, who, among other things, join Sasha to sing the song "White Boys."
Of the three, Sasha Allen is the newcomer to Hair. She began her career while still in high school, doing regional tours of shows such as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind. Then, the dynamic singer "transferred into music," as she puts it. "I had two record deals that fell through. So I started singing with different artists, Christina Aguilera and a few others." She was out in Los Angeles working with the singer Leona Lewis when her agent called and asked if she wanted to audition for Hair. She was specifically requested for the audition because of her work in the 2003 movie Camp, which has gained a following among musical theater fans over the years. "I didn't know the movie was going to be such a cult hit and have such a big following," she says. "It started out as a reading we were doing and then it turned into a movie. I got very lucky, to be a part of that."
Nicole Lewis has been with the show since the 2007 anniversary concert which preceded the 2008 summer run. Though she has always loved acting, she didn't start out anticipating that she'd make a career of it. During her undergraduate years at Yale, she studied pre-med, psychology and biology before switching into the theater program. After college, she moved to New York "to be in Les Miz. That was my mission. That lasted about a year," she laughs. When she didn't get that dream role in Les Miserables, she returned to school, obtaining her master's in theater from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. She worked in various acting roles, then almost went back to school after a dry spell. "Instead, I came back to musical theater." This time, she found a regular home on Broadway, with roles in Lennon and Rent and auditioned for the concert production of Hair. "I did not imagine that two years later we'd be here on Broadway," she says. "But, here we are."
Like Lewis, Saycon Sengbloh first joined the cast for the 2007 Central Park concert production. The Atlanta native has worked in theater since her teensboth at the Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble of Atlanta and at a magnet school for the visual and performing arts in East Point, Georgia. She studied Spanish at Agnes Scott College, but minored in theater. "Instead of waiting tables, my extra job would be acting in plays," she says. She left school to tour with the show Making It, which "crashed and burned. They owed us all money; we came home with our tails between our legs." Following that, however, the work started to pour in more steadily. Sengbloh was cast as Mimi in the national tour of Rent, and has performed in the national tour and Broadway productions of Aida, the Atlanta and Broadway productions of The Color Purple, Wicked on Broadway and a number of other shows. Sengbloh is especially thrilled to be in the first cast this time around. "One thing that's different is that when you come in as a replacement you're working with the original choreography," she explains. "A lot of the choreography is based on the other individual. So you have to move your arm like this one, move your leg like that one. Something that's natural to one person may not be as natural to you. But in this show I can just be who I am and move how I move."
Not just Lewis and Sengbloh, but most of the 2008 Central Park cast has made the move to Broadway. Allen, along with co-stars Gavin Creel [Claude] and Caissie Levy [Sheila], are the new additions. Admittedly, Allen was nervous at first. "You kind of feel like the junior who's coming into a high school class where everybody's been there for three years," she says. "Gavin, Caissie and I had a rehearsal the day before, and we told each other, 'We're all together. We'll be ok.'" Once they started working with the rest of the cast, however, Allen was taken aback by how welcoming everyone was. "At first I thought maybe everybody was putting it on because it was our first day. But everybody was genuinely as nice as they appeared. I mean, I was called Patina [Renea Miller, who played Dionne in the Central Park production] a few times," she laughs. "I heard that she was excellent in it and that she's wonderful, so I guess I have to take it as a compliment. Now, I'm completely comfortable, completely open and free."
For their part, Lewis, Sengbloh and the rest of the Tribe has welcomed the newcomers. "I certainly think that with each new member the Tribe changes," Lewis says. "Each new person imbues the Tribe with new energy, and then the Tribe shifts. Everyone brings their own individual persona and take on the characters, and we're all responding to each other. So, much of it is fairly fluid. Also, all the new people who have comeSasha, Gavin and Caissieare all so good. I know Sasha's sitting right here, but still! I would say it even if she wasn't."
More than perhaps any other show on Broadway, the cast interacts extensively with the audience, addressing its members, dancing up and down the aisles, and even inviting the audience onto the stage. "Us and the audience, it's completely an interaction," says Lewis. "I'm up on stage looking at the audience and thinking, 'Are you getting it?' In most plays you probably just keep going. But here we get to look into people's faces and communicate and speak to them in a way. It is interesting to get from certain people certain depths of understanding and feeling. That completely affects me, because we really do contact the audience. There's no fourth wall in that sense."
Allen has been out of the theater for a while, carving out a successful career singing with pop stars. However, if anything, she feels even more comfortable with this audience dynamic precisely because of her experience performing in concerts. "When you're in a concert, you're singing to the audience. This is not really that much different. When I'm singing, I'm staring at all those faces, and I can see the emotion we're evoking in them," she says. "They know each and every song, they dance to it." Allen gets this phenomenon started when she sings the opening song "Aquarius," one of the show's most enduring hits. "I see people in the audience reacting, and I think, 'This is your jam, isn't it?' The last thing I did before coming here was work with Babyface in concert. I could see that there too, people remembering where they were when they first heard the songs."
Allen, Lewis and Sengbloh have a markedly different frame of reference from those in the audience who are reminiscing. They weren't born when the songs in question became hits and the show in which they're starring changed the face of American theater. The cast has worked to learn enough about the era to ground themselves in its language and its spirit. There was a dramaturg on hand to assist them with the dialect, tell them what some of the now-antiquated expressions mean. "Some of the actors also sought out more information to make their parts more real for themselves," Sengbloh adds.
As the trio that sings "White Boys," the fact that Allen, Lewis and Sengbloh are black women is critical to their roles; and this posed its own set of unique set of challenges. "I found it a little difficult to do research about what it was like to be a black woman hippie. I don't know what that is," Lewis states. "If you look at what black women were doing in 1967, either they were part of the civil rights movement or the black power movement. There was still a certain amount of segregation, even though it was up here in New York ... In the research we did, we met [Don Ware,] one of Diane Paulus' colleagues from A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, where Paulus is artistic director]. He sent me a paper by Elizabeth Deutsch called "The New Blue" about the movement for Coeducation and Women's Liberation at Yale in 1969. I read about what it was like to be a woman in the protest movement, in civil rights, at a time when the civil rights movement started to become more mainstream. It was very difficult for women because they were not at the forefront. The men were at the forefront. The women were getting coffee or otherwise expected to service the men sexually."
This gave her a lot to think about, Lewis says. "How all of these people in our Tribe got together, why they're here, why there seems to be such equality and love and peace. I think in some ways it's like a little utopia, a haven. I'm not sure it exactly mirrors the time, that there would be that many black people in this group of hippies. But, it's good for our time and probably back then it was what the writers thought was utopia. If you looked at peace and love and community, they thought it would look like what you see on stage."
In preparing for the role, the women also thought about the experiences of their parents and grandparents during the 1960s. Allen, a native of Harlem, thinks about her Bermuda-born grandmother and her mother, who saw Hair together when it was first produced. "There were so many different sides to life then, especially in New York. There were a lot of black women who were angry, a lot of mixed emotions especially among the minorities. Then my grandma had my mother and they lived in the Village. And it felt like everybody was happy there. Then they went back uptown and there was a lot more anger, a lot more protests."
"My family is from the West Indies," Lewis says. "There, the majority of the people are black. So they don't feel like they are a minority group. Of course, they were treated like they were, under colonialization ... My mother was the first woman in her family to go to college. For her, it was so much about, 'Let me make my way in the world. I need to be successful, I need to move ahead.' My grandfather earned his bachelor's degree going to Brooklyn College at night. Working smaller jobs, he didn't have the same opportunities. It was all about how to have more opportunities. I think that was true for a lot of black people at the time."
As Lewis points out, it is impossible to think of Hair without bringing her modern day perspective into it. "In Darius [Nichol]'s song, Hud's song 'Colored Spade,' he says when he gets to the White House they're going to feed him watermelons and hominy grits. In my head, I couldn't get out of my contemporary mentality. 'Sure they could feed him that in the White House! He can eat whatever he wants in the White House.' But back then, it was a joke."
"I played that song for my grandma recently," Allen says. "Though she took my mother to see Hair in the '60s, she didn't remember the song necessarily. She was cracking up; she thought it was hilarious. She didn't take it personally or anything. She said, 'It's a little uncomfortable, but it is so true. It's how people looked at us.' And it's right smack in your face."
Not everyone can laugh that way, she acknowledges. "It comes, for her, from living through the times. People would say that they were not racist, but when they closed their doors, they would say and think what they wanted, anyway. So, the fact that the song put it all out in the open was great to her, especially having come so far." She adds, "It was great to see my grandma laugh."
Sengbloh states that she had to come to terms with the way in which racial stereotypes are lampooned in Hair. "Everyone has his or her own level of sensitivity. I guess, myself, all my life I've been kind of serious. Even as a kid, I had a tendency to take things very seriously. A lot of the songs in the show are very heavy to me. 'Colored Spade,' and the solo I sing in the show, 'Abie Baby' ... I had to make it make sense for me, why I would do this show and the role."
"Spike Lee did a movie called Bamboozled, she continues. "Damon Wayans plays a writer who develops a television show based on the old [black minstrel] actors. There was one real actor, Stepin Fetchit [Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who played this kind of role early on]. He was one of the first black millionaires in Hollywood. One of the few making money, supporting their families, driving fancy cars. Up to a certain point they were revered by the black community as being important entertainers. Then, when that form of humor fell out of style, they suddenly lost their footing, their opportunities to make money. A lot of the actors who would do this kind of shuckin' and jivin', their whole livelihoods got turned around. On the one hand, it's good that now African Americans are being portrayed in a more positive light. But in the end, there are entire groups of actors who lost work because of [retaliation against the stereotypes] ... With what we're doing in the show, every night there are going to be people who love it, there are going to be people who hate it or are offended. As long as people think about it, start talking about these things, then we're serving the purpose that we want to serve, which is not only to entertain but give people the room to start thinking and to make them think about changing the ways that they see people, the things they think about people."
In the end, the trio finds both this provocative aspect of Hair and the memories the songs and the show evoke in their audience rewarding and moving. "So many people come up to us and say things like, 'Forty years ago, my mom wouldn't let me see Hair' or 'I saw it the first time around,'" Allen says. "People are reliving their childhood, their teenage years. The young kids in the audience are so fun and free. Certainly that forces you to keep it fresh."
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