When Roni Shelley Perez left Omaha for New York City
last spring to pursue a musical theater career, she
assumed she’d have to pay long, hard dues before
catching a break. But in something straight out of 42nd
Street, it took her only three months to land an
Her whirlwind experience saw her arrive in the Big Apple
in late March, try out for several productions and then get
cast in June in Comfort Women – A New Musical. She
landed the supporting role of Soonja Ma in the all-Asian
show. Rare for a newcomer, she understudied the lead
role of Go-eun Kim. She played the lead on Tuesdays
during the run from July 27 through Sept. 2 at Playwrights
Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theater on, you guessed it,
fabled 42nd Street.
“It was a wild ride,” Perez said. “My castmates were
superb and our energy reflected off each other to keep the
show lively every night. I went on as the lead every
Tuesday night, which was cool. It was an honor.”
Perez’s parents and some of her Omaha theater buddies
went to New York to see her on stage. Her Omaha bestie,
fellow actress Regina Palmer, caught Perez the last week
of the show.
“Roni was phenomenal,” Palmer said. “The show itself
was very tragic and emotional, but I think I cried most
about seeing her on that stage doing what she was truly
born to do. You can tell how much she loves it and that
makes her performances so special. Not to mention she’s
Perez never imagined her first speaking part would come
“No, not at all. I’m very grateful. I’m glad to be doing what I
love.” said Perez, 22, who only a year ago was gracing
stages in Omaha, where she earned rave reviews and
For her first New York gig, the Filipino Perez welcomed
being part of an Asian cast in a story about Korean women
and girls forced into sex slavery by occupying Japanese
forces during World War II.
“It was very important and beautiful to be a part of a cast
full of Asian actors and actresses because it is hard for our
demographic to get hired in musical theater or in the
industry or the performing arts in general. It was nice to be
a part of all these other talented human beings. We all had
each others’ back.”
She also felt privileged to help dramatize this “very
unsettling” historical episode. The story the play tells is
drawn from actual survivor testimonies.
“Rehearsals,” Perez said, “were raw because what these
women went through was so heavy. There’s no words to
describe the conditions they were in.”
Perez is proud to have been part of a project that focused
attention on human trafficking.
“People are speaking up about this issue now, and I hope
our show brought forward this issue even more.”
Learning the roles of two “comfort women” tested Perez.
“I loved the pressure it put on my plate. It allowed me to
challenge myself in ways that I never thought I could. I
need to be pushed and so I’m grateful to be challenged by
a show like this that is so emotionally and physically
Portraying women who endured so much, she said, was
“humbling for sure.”
For her audition, Perez delivered a song and a monologue
of her choice.
“Having the liberty to do that in an audition is awesome
but also overwhelming because then you’re like, ‘What are
they looking for?’ I sang the song and did the monologue.
As I exited, I accidentally bumped into the piano. I made a
joke of it, saying, ‘Take it out of my student loans.’ They
emailed that night the music for the call back. Then
another email for the dance call back the following week.”
Then she waited for word if she made the cast. She got
the news while at her French bakery counter job.
“I wanted to freak out but I was still at work. I was really
good friends with one of my coworkers and I told her, so I
got to freak out a little bit with her. But then I still had to do
my job. I called my parents on my break and told them,
‘Hey, I’m making my off-Broadway debut.’ It was insane.
The next day I was like, ‘Oh, that was a cool dream.’ It
didn’t hit me this was real until first rehearsal when we got
the script and met the creative team.”
Perez, who shares a Washington Heights living space in
Manhattan with fellow actors, knows she may have to wait
for her next stage job in a profession filled with rejection.
“If you just sit back and sulk about a part you didn’t get, it
gets kind of hard to keep going forward,” she said. “You
have to kind of let it go because there are other auditions
coming up. That’s a healthy mentality to have. Otherwise,
this industry will suck you dry.”
The experience of Comfort Women, she said, “has
boosted my confidence and also shown me what else I
need to keep working on.”
Meanwhile, she’s part of a growing community of Omaha
natives who’ve made it in New York or recently arrived to
try their luck there. Kevyn Morrow, Yolonda Ross,
Stephanie Kurtzuba, Quiana Smith. John Lloyd Young and
Andrew Rannells have already found success. Perez and
Bailey Carlson are just breaking in. Regina Palmer heads
there next spring.
“Roni and I will be reunited, which I’m super excited
about,” said Palmer.
Perez, who encouraged Palmer to try New York, is just
happy to share the ride with hometown aspirants.
“It is inspiring and motivating and affirming to be doing
what we’re destined to do.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.