Yorks Latest Production Pushes The Envelope with Controversial Characters Much to the Delight of the Actors

Cast members of Our Lady of 121st Street (PHOTO BY VICTORIA MARQUEZ)
Cast members of Our Lady of 121st Street (PHOTO BY VICTORIA MARQUEZ)

“The characters are crude, unrefined, and beautifully, wonderfully flawed,” said Michael Earle Fajardo, director of York’s latest production, Our Lady of 121st Street. “It is through these flaws that we see their soul, really witness them. They do not hide; they do not roll over and complain. They fight and rail in a world that contrives to crush them, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.” 

Behind the scenes, actors and actresses in the production found themselves focused on just that; character immersion and in-depth portrayals.

Debuting last month in the York College Performing Arts Center, Our Lady of 121st , an adaptation of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2002 play, chronicled the everyday lives of people living in Harlem filled with tragedy and laughter. The play opens on the Ortiz Funeral Home where the body of Sister Rose, a nun and beloved community activist, has been removed from the viewing room. Waiting for the news of the proper return of her body is a group of emotional neighborhood tenants, looking for something to pour all of their grief into.

“When I go to the theatre, my hope is that I will laugh, cry and think…you can get away with a lot if you can offer the audience some laughter.” said Stephen Adly Guirgis in an interview with L.A. Theatre Works.

Most people come to the theatre without really thinking about these expectations and what it actually takes to fulfill these goals. The audience is used to just seeing the end result. We see all of the hard work and brilliance of the actors on stage in each and every production. But these productions don’t just happen overnight. The actor’s don’t just jump on stage and regurgitate lines to become the characters. They go through a long soul searching process where they learn who their character is, what they are doing there, how to find that person inside of themselves and share that experience with the audience.

This is something that every York production goes through.This play has no shortage of fascinating characters that took alot for actors to bring to life. Amongst the humorous and disastrous characters of the play, are several standout characters.

Rooftop (Uchenna Ijeaku) is a disloyal but very successful Los Angeles DJ and radio personality, seeking to reunite with his recently married ex-wife, Inez.There’s also two brothers, Pinky (Kevin Cauvin) and Edwin (Enrique Valdez), who are heartbreakingly trapped together forever, due to an unwavering love for one another.

Then theres the dynamic duo, Flip (Anthony Castro), a lawyer who’s decided to go back into the closet for the duration of Sister Rose’s wake and Gail (Anthony Alicea) an unapologetically gay aspiring actor, who are play the perfect, hilarious bickering gay couple.”

There’s the shockingly rabid “nasty Norca” (Sarabeth M. Pierre) an ill-mannered, disrespectful street girl who completely disregards the fact that she slept with her best friend’s husband and expects her best friend to forget the past and let bygones be bygones. Last but certainly not least, there’s Marcia (Bukola Ogunmola) the anxious young woman with asthma and niece of Sister Rose whose best friends with the lonely Sonia (Bellene Fisher) who comes along to the wake.

In the dark sea of tragedy, this small crowd, motivated by rage, heartache and a frightening desire to wipe their slates clean they reach a state of calm that they never had before.

Shakeerah Fredericks and the rest of the cast understand that such a long process can be trying and difficult at times. “you have to take what the character is experiencing and heighten it and go through whatever necessary to make your work believable.”  Fredericks said “It was the most challenging experience for me because she was very complex. Guirgis really forces you to find every corner of her mind and heart in order to be her on stage,”

The other members of the cast experienced similar difficulties as with finding their character “Going from the transition of being the man backstage to being the man on stage was new,” said Enrique Valdez, who has usually spent time as a stagehand in previous York productions. “It was tough adjusting to being on stage in a scene rather than setting it up.”

“Preparing for rehearsals was not tough. This is a play I knew well having used it for my acting classes a lot and I knew what we needed to achieve in each scene” said the director , Michael Fajardo, about his experience with finding his character Balthazar, another important character in the production.

His character, was a man whose life has been filled with loss and tragedy, was also a very interesting character to portray.“Yes, acting and directing was tough, particularly for the scenes I was in. I literally had to split my focus in two…one part of my brain focussing on my character and being “in the moment”, and the other side trying to direct the scene as if I were sitting on the outside of it.”

Though Mr. Fajardo  did a lovely job directing the production here at York, he was overjoyed at the opportunity to trade in his director’s outfit for his Balthazar costume to perform on stage:“It was a big relief when we got to the actual performances and I was able to forget about the directing and just be able to focus on my character.”

Fajardo was happy with the results of his play.“The most rewarding thing is that in the end I believe we achieved my vision. There were many performances where the audience was reacting to all of the little moments we crafted in exactly the way I hoped they would. This made me think “yes! all that work we did on each moment for each character in every scene is paying off”. And I have to give whole lot of credit to my wonderfully talented cast for making that happen.”

Fajardo expressed his gratitude in how again another amazing production was brought to life through the hard work and dedication of our actors here in York College that took part in the play.

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