BWW Feature: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! River Students 'TCB' at TUTS' 2019 Inclusive Arts Showcase
When 14-year-old Reyna Negret sashayed to center stage in Zilkha Hall and started the familiar opening lines of Aretha Franklin's iconic "Respect", a Hobby Center staff member seated at the back of the theater jumped to her feet, clapping along.
"Yes, girl! You show 'em!"
And show them she did. Negret belted Aretha, tossing her hair and captivating the audience with her girl-power moves. What made Negret's performance so special is that she isn't just any teenager singing the Queen of Soul - Negret is a student at The River Performing and Visual Arts Center, Theatre Under the Stars' arts education program for children with all types and levels of disabilities. The full spectrum of ability levels could be seen in Negret's back-up singers, including one in a motorized wheelchair and one assisted by a walker.
The 4th Annual Inclusive Arts Showcase on May 7th paired River students like Negret with students from the Academy at The Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, TUTS' audition-based training program, to perform a wide variety of musical numbers. Lucky audience members saw everything from duets of popular songs such as "You Say" and "Shallow", to a lovely rendition of "Blackbird" performed by Ella DuCharme, on vocals and guitar, and Brennan Emeka (recently seen on the Theatre Under the Stars stage as Chip in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), enhanced by choreography performed by River student Zoe White.
There were high-energy dance numbers to "Baby I'm A Star", where students in wheelchairs and walkers maneuvered across the stage with their able-bodied peers, each one given ample opportunity to shine, and a hilarious silent-movie pantomime dance to the "William Tell" Overture. These students shared the stage with the young adults of Second Act Theatre, who performed "This Is Me" from THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
Pre-show, in the dressing room, HSMT student Mabyn Coleman was excited for the audience to see the results of everyone's hard work. "I think people will really enjoy seeing the connection between the HSMT students and The River students," she said, ready to perform alongside River students in numbers from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and SEESAW.
Fellow student Hope Vanderburg added, "The arts connect us, and we are celebrating that connection!"
Onstage, that camaraderie was palpable.
The audience was charmed from the beginning, cheering and encouraging the performers. During a spoken-word tribute to a long-time nurse at The River who lost her battle to cancer earlier this year, an audience member's cell phone alarm went off, causing one of the River students onstage to lose her focus. She seemed on the verge of panic but cries of "You've got this!" and "It's okay! You can do it!" from offstage as well as from the audience grounded her, and she finished beautifully. It was a genuine, supportive moment for everyone involved.
"This night emphasizes how much theatre helps us express ourselves when we don't know how, and it helps us tell a story; we get to tell that story together," said HSMT student Nicole Fish. "I've never been anywhere like this."
After the touching finale of "Just One Person" and "Don't Stop Believin'", I asked long-time River student Abby Yadan if she felt like a star. She buried her face against her mom, then peeked up at me though her bangs and said, "No, a superstar!" And she was right. They were all superstars.