Stars Behind The Stars: Angelica Chéri ’13
BY Robbie Armstrong, May 8, 2020
Stars Behind The Stars is a bi-weekly series featuring theatre makers behind the scenes.
This week we sat down with Playwriting alumna Angelica Chéri ’13 and discussed her work on the original musical Gun & Powder, inspired by the true story of Mary and Martha Clarke, Chéri's great-great aunts, African American twin sisters who passed for White and were notorious outlaws. Set in Post-Emancipation Texas, the musical follows Mary and Martha's journey of defying racial boundaries and seizing what rightfully belongs to them, by any means necessary. They are successful at their charade until they each find themselves in love with two very different men.
Tell me about your first time in Theatre.
Angelica Chéri: I was in an advanced drama class in middle school. I performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We had a split cast where I played a fairy in one version and Flute in another. I continued theatre by acting in Shakespeare competitions in middle and high school. I did pieces from Julius Caesar and other Shakespeare shows. Sometimes when you’re young, you give a piece all you’ve got and then you look back and realize you had no idea what you were saying.
What is your sign and how does it appear in your work?
AC: I’m a Leo. My cat just joined us and I think of him as my mascot. The stereotypical things are that Leos are the center of attention. I am dramatic, lively, very outgoing and expressive, which are definitely aligned with Leos.
How did Robert O’Hara come to direct Gun & Powder?
AC: Well Gun & Powder was a five year process. Some of its roots are from my time at Columbia where I took a musical theatre lyric writing class taught by Deborah Brevoort. This show was later my thesis at NYU, where I did a second masters in musical theatre writing. I wrote the show with Ross Baum who was my classmate at NYU. We then submitted the show to SigWorks Lab at the Signature in Arlington, Virginia. We were chosen out of over 170 shows to move forward with that lab production. Afterwards, Signature offered us a production at the beginning of 2020 on their 30th anniversary. That’s when Robert O’Hara ’96 joined us and directed the first full scale production.
What is the future for the show?
AC: We want to have a lab and work on more of the things we learned from the production in Virginia. Our goal is to move forward with the show and produce it again. It’s interesting, rehearsing for a musical has so many different parts. Every individual thing can affect another thing and moving one song can change so many things. If a song moves, do the lyrics still make sense? Does the movement still make sense? A musical is so much more sensitive than a play and needs time to develop. After seeing the rehearsals at Signature so many new thoughts came up. A lab is an opportunity to triage the play and move things around to make new discoveries. Once you have a show on its feet then you need to let the show grow and leave it alone a little more.
How has your Columbia education prepared you for a career in theatre?
AC: The biggest word that was stressed at Columbia was “collaboration”. What does that mean in every step and the process? Ross and I collaborate in every step of every idea. We talked about every single detail of the characters in every moment. Now Robert O’Hara is a collaborator and from there, every person in the room is an active collaborator. If you want to have a career in the theatre, you have to learn to be a collaborator. The different perspectives that are in the room are so valuable and knowing how to respectfully disagree is critical to development The art of collaboration will continue to be relevant and vital.
What type of theatre inspires you most?
AC: When I go to the theatre, I’m looking to see something large and massive. Not just a huge spectacle, I want to see the stakes be massively larger than life. I was just as moved by August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson as I was with The Lion King. I want to see the necessity of the characters to access something in humanity that was life or death. I want to have an experience that mirrors something that connects to my own humanity. Watching someone who is sorting through the intricacies of a relationship or grappling with their past and experiencing that with the people around me is why theatre is so powerful.
I'd love to know more about what kind of theatre you think will be most important once this pandemic is over. What type of art do you think the world needs right now?
AC: A return to theatre in general is going to be powerful. It will be an obstacle. What choice will people make when the gates to the theatre are open again? Seeing the human experience lived in front of you at the same time. That will be amplified.
If you could be any famous child, who would you be and why?
AC: Willow Smith. I love seeing her relationship with Jada and the whole Red Table Talk Show. It’s awesome for three generations of women to talk in that way. She is very creative and has a lot of freedom without obstacles in her creativity.
What’s your favorite play or musical?
AC: My favorite is the musical that brought me into musical theatre was Caroline, Or Change. I didn’t know what was possible in musical theatre until that show. To see that a black woman who was a maid in a Lake Charles, Louisiana basement in the 60’s, could be the lead of a musical. The bus can sing, the washer and dryer can see, the radio...I never realized they could all sing and tell the story too.