(Pictured Left to Right: Zhomontee, Regina Palmer, Echelle)
A year ago, Omaha South High Magnet School and SNAP Productions set the local theater scene abuzz with their joint staging of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights. The all-star production of current and former South students, school performing arts staff, and community theater veterans filled seats and won raves.
South and SNAP are again co-producing an acclaimed musical, Once On this Island, which happens to be enjoying a Broadway revival. The June 28-July 1 run at South once more teams community and school artists in a show about love conquering differences.
All tickets are $20. Proceeds benefit SNAP and South.
Urban-themed Heights was set in New York City's Dominican subculture. Island is set in the Antilles archipelago, where love-sick orphan Ti Moune breaches the divide between dark-skinned peasants and light-skinned aristocrats with help from the gods. The Romeo and Juliet-inspired story is nearly all sung-through.
South and SNAP share a message through theater.
"I feel our mission of inclusion and acceptance dovetails beautifully with South's amazingly diverse student body and nurturing environment," said SNAP Artistic Director Michal Simpson, who directs the show.
"We believe theater should inspire and educate, unite and connect. We want it to reflect our world today – to share stories that reflect the gifts all cultures and ethnicities bring to the table. Above all, we believe theater can change people and, perhaps by seeing shows like these, our community becomes more open and affirming, welcoming and respectful of all people,"
Island producer and South Magnet Coordinator Rebecca Noble said.
"The fact we are able to do multicultural and ethnically correct casting is something SNAP has been striving for," Simpson said.
Regina Palmer, who plays Ti Moune, said, "It's exciting that this story about island people of color is being told by a demographically correct cast."
Show stage manager and South High graduate Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva said, "This show is a great opportunity for people of color to demonstrate we're out here and we're as talented as anybody else. I think that's what a lot of the theater community is looking for right now."
Noble said Simpson has assembled "an amazing cast."
The play features three Omaha theater stars who've shared the stage before: Palmer, Echelle Childers, and Zhomontee Watson. They became greatly noticed in Caroline, or Change at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
"That OCP connection brings us back full circle," said Watson. "We work really well together. Our voices meld.
And we genuinely enjoy each other's time and company,
so it's nice to be reunited in another show that is so powerful and packs a lot meaning into it."
Then there's the synergy of different ages collaborating.
"It gives students a great opportunity to work with some talented people in the community," Moreno Villanueva said. "It's important for adults to connect with young people because they are the future of theater."
"Everyone gets connected in this way. I think it's a beautiful thing," said Watson, who plays Asaka.
Simpson said it's a great training ground.
"With the staff and adult talent they're working with, the kids can get a true read of what it's like to participate in the community. They are exposed to new methods of direction, staging and choreography as well as new friendships and mentors. It's a win-win for all involved."
South senior-to-be Juan Valdovinos, who was in Heights, loves working with high-caliber talent.
"This collaboration gives me a chance to experience a new level of theater and dedication. I've grown a lot as a singer, a dancer, and actor. It's pushed me to do better at what I do. It's an amazing opportunity. I would never have dreamed of performing with adults like this.
"We set a very high standard last year, but this cast is very passionate and I know we are up to the challenge."
He appears in Island's ensemble.
Noble looks to expand collaborations "with other organizations because our kids learn with every new person they work with and we feel really strongly that as an arts magnet we need to help them grow and have as many opportunities as possible."
Though Zhomontee Watson did not attend South, she is an Omaha Public Schools graduate from Benson, and she appreciates this opportunity for new collaborations.
"I had never worked with SNAP before, so I wanted to be able to gain those connections and work with a new director. I love working with new people," Watson said.
The productions also serve as reunions.
"One of the ensemble girls, Isabel (Gott), actually played my daughter when we did Les Miserable for the OPS summer musical at South," Palmer said.
South High alum Kate Myers Madsen, who plays Andrea, is back again after performing in Heights. This new show reconnects her with old friends.
"My good friend Justin Blackson did Once On this Island with me in high school. I worked with the choreographer (Roxanne Nielsen) throughout high school."
Things have come full circle for Myers Madsen, whose first Omaha community theater gig was with SNAP.
She said these plays showcase what South offers.
"When I was at South, it was never given the credit it was due, but there's always been a phenomenal, talented student base. It's finally got the platform to show why it's the arts magnet."
Island's take on shades of color equating to class status is timely given today's rhetoric around race and immigration.
"Colorism is one of the main conflicts in the play," Palmer said, "and in real life it's not something talked about often. Usually it's just straight racism.
Colorism is more nuanced because it exists within black communities in which lighter-skinned people, even though still black, are looked upon more favorably than dark-skinned people. This is still a very relevant, problematic issue.”
Palmer also said,"I remember when I was younger staying in summers because I didn't want my skin to get darker."
Zhomontee Watson said that in addition to the play's heart-filled music and dance numbers, its powerful human themes about identity will make audiences think.
"It's something that makes you sit down and process how you fit into the story and what you look like in the story," Watson said.
For dates, times, and tickets, visit www.eventbrite.com/e/once-on-this-island-tickets or call 531-299-7685.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.