BWW Interviews: TUTS Director Roshunda Jones Brings It On In BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL
In this discussion with Roshunda Jones, Director of Theatre Under the Stars' production of BRING IT ON, I discuss, of course, BRING IT ON, a cupcake of a show with a creamy white icing filling in the form of a message about acceptance. Then we talk about the art and craft of cheerleading. So much work and dedication goes into those athletic stunts, and cheerleaders have to smile while doing it. I know football players can't. That's why they wear the helmets with masks.
BWW: Could you give me a synopsis of the show?
Roshunda Jones: BRING IT ON is based off the Bring It On films. It's the story of two squads - the Truman and Jackson squads. They're competing against each other for nationals. The main character, Campbell, she gets transferred (redistricted) to the Jackson school. She has to leave her school where she's cheer captain, and she's thrown into a whole new world. When she gets to Jackson, she wants them to compete for nationals and to win a trophy, but they have no interest in that at all. It's two teams from separate sides of the world and different sides of the track. When Campbell gets there, they have a dance crew. She wants to make their "crew" a "squad." At the beginning they are not for it at all. But, when she convinces them to compete, they actually enjoy it a little bit. Then they learn a little bit about each other. Truman has very traditional cheers and is very traditional cheerleading. Jackson has the flavor. Campbell loves the modern hip-hop type movement so the two world's merge. Then Truman and Jackson meet at nationals. It's a story of acceptance. It's not only a story about cheerleading and cheer competitions. It's a story about friendship. It's a story about how we can learn from one another and respect each other.
BWW: Most people are familiar with the film. In what ways will they be surprised by the musical?
Roshunda Jones: There will be a lot more singing and dancing. [I Laugh] And, on film you can do takes. But, the live cheerleading and the stunts, the energy, the dancing, and the choreography is amazing. They are really going to cheer a routine - singing, acting and dancing all at the same time. The energy they put forth with that. [Laughs] Plus, the music is really, really good in the show. It's a well written show.
BWW: I'm actually talking to the actors later today. I really wonder how they manage to do the singing and the dancing at the same time.
Roshunda Jones: [Laughs] It takes a lot of rehearsal and they are so committed and dedicated in the rehearsal process. I'm excited about seeing the final product.
Click below to meet the hardworking cast of TUT's BRING IT ON
BWW: I am too. I can't wait to see it. You've addressed this in your first two answers, but I want you to talk about it directly. BRING IT ON has been criticized and dismissed for being featherweight. How would you respond to those critics?
Roshunda Jones: I'd say they need to come see it. It really has a good moral and a good message. It has a lot of spectacle in the cheering, but it has a message. So, I say they're wrong. [We Laugh]
BWW: The original film, for better or worse, had quite a bit to say about appropriation, race, and socioeconomic status.
Roshunda Jones: Yes, yes.
BWW: Does the musical retain some of that?
Roshunda Jones: It deals with that. We do know that the Truman side is more affluent than the Jackson side. It does mention that, but I don't think we get caught up in that. It is mentioned and, yes, it is recognized. We do know that Jackson is a school that's kind of scary. It has more problems. But, the thing about high school is you have the same issues everywhere. That makes the story universal. No matter what your background or your socioeconomic status.
BWW: It won't be dealing with appropriation quite so much.
Roshunda Jones: Not quite so much.
BWW: Tell me how you prepared to direct this production.
Roshunda Jones: My take on directing is to really focus on the story and then focus on bringing out the character and the characterization and making sure that the characters take a journey. If the characters take a journey, it will come across to the audience.
BWW: What were some of the directorial challenges?
Roshunda Jones: Making sure we were being true to the distinction between the cheerleaders and the dance crew. The story is about high school students but they're from two separate schools. The schools have to be really different. There has to be a distinction between those two worlds and between the way the cheerleaders behave versus the Jackson crew.
BWW: How did you achieve that?
Roshunda Jones: First, I got the cast members comfortable with each other. I did some improvisational scenarios before we started with the book and the script. The improvisation activities really helped. We really studied the script. I made the kids talk about the characters and what the characters wanted to achieve. That really helped as well. Then when we started running the scenes with the music and the dance, the kids just meshed with it.
BWW: How was it working with younger actors?
Roshunda Jones: That's my element. I love working with young actors because they're moldable. They're hungry. They want to be great. They want to be good. They take criticism well. And there's just an innocence about them.
BWW: It's probably owing to the fact that you're also a teacher.
Roshunda Jones: Yes. [Laugs]
BWW: What inspired you and helped you with problem solving?
Roshunda Jones: I watched not only Bring It On but cheerleading videos. Then I researched cheerleaders and the way cheerleaders moved and acted. I already had my own preconceptions about cheerleaders, but I did a little more research just to see the look, the feel, the walk, and how they reacted everyday. As far as the Jackson dance crew, I watched a lot of hip-hop type videos to see how they move and get a feel for their energy.
BWW: What was your perception of cheerleaders before you started working on this show? Has it changed?
Roshunda Jones: [Laughs] I do consider cheerleading a sport. But, sometimes you can get caught up in thinking they're superficial like, [Imitates the voice of an airhead] "I'm just a cheerleader and I'm going to be at the football games." No, it truly is a sport. It's a craft just like acting is a craft. Sometimes people don't think actors do very much, but we, and the people in the theatre world in general, do a lot. It's an artform in itself. It takes craft and determination. I think I have a higher level of respect for cheerleaders now.
BWW: It reminds me of ballet. There's so much beauty and grace but there's so much work that goes into being able to do such athletic movement while still smiling and looking beautiful.
Roshunda Jones: Exactly.
BWW: So, I'm curious, this is totally off-topic: you're a Whartonite. Are you in any way inspired by Horton Foote?
Roshunda Jones: Oh - of course! Yes! [Laughs] I'm so inspired by him. He's a wonderful playwright. There's a theatre in Wharton called the The Plaza Theatre and the adult actors are called the Footliters after him and then the younger actors are called the Litefooters. Eleven years ago, I started a youth program called the Litefooter youth program. We did summer shows. I love how Wharton preserves the history and his memory, and I love training younger actors in Wharton. So, yes! We all admire his work.
BWW: Definitely. I love Wharton. It's funny. I set one of my screenplays in Wharton, and when I was there, I was doing research, and I asked some of the locals, "What makes Wharton special? What makes Wharton different?" Someone replied, "We have a Denny's and a Wal-mart."
Roshunda Jones: [Laughs] And we just got those not too long ago. [Laughs]
BWW: They said they went to football games for fun and also had wine parties, I think, in a field.
Roshunda Jones: Yes. [Laughs]
BWW: Tell me you partied harder when you lived there.
Roshunda Jones: Probably didn't. In high school you had nowhere to go. You had to pick a place. [We scream with laughter]
BWW: Alright then. I was hoping they were just stereotypes but, no, you really have field parties.
Roshunda Jones: Not stereotypes. For the Wal-mart, they had a parade and a grand opening!
Roshunda Jones: Awww, thanks.
BWW: What advice do you consistently give to your students?
Roshunda Jones: Theatre is life. Theatre helps everyone no matter what their future plans are. It helps you become a better person, a better doctor, even a better parent, because it deals with people. It teaches you how interact with and learn from different people. It teaches you problem solving. It's just good life skill class.
BWW: I agree. Theatre can also be a brutal industry. How do you encourage your students?
Roshunda Jones: I try to encourage them depending on path they want to take. Like trying to find colleges or auditions. I try to be as honest with them as possible especially when it comes to critiques. I really instill in them that it's not easy. I let them know they won't always get it this easy. Sometimes, I might give it to you hard but, believe me, when you got out into the world it's going to be harder. I really try to be honest and upfront so that they won't be shocked when they go out into the world but I encourage them by telling them that they should follow their dreams.
Theatre Under The Stars' (TUTS) Humphreys School of Musical Theatre (HSMT) production of BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL runs Sept. 12-14 at Zilkha Hall (The Hobby Center). On Sept. 12 and 13, shows are at 7:30 pm. On Sept. 13 and 14 shows are at 1:30 pm. Tickets (starting at $24) are available online at TUTS.com/BringItOn, by phone at (713) 558-TUTS(8887), outside the Houston area at (888) 558-3882, or in person at the Theatre Under The Stars Box Office, located at 800 Bagby at Walker, Monday - Friday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., and Saturday - Sunday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Special offers are available for groups of 10 or more by calling (713) 558-8888 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All BRING IT ON photos, poster artwork and media courtesy of TUTS
Tommy Tune Awards logo courtesy of TUTS