Co-Op Students Ease On Down The Road

Lucy Gellman | March 11th, 2024

Co-Op Students Ease On Down The Road

Co-Op High School  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  Musical Theater  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  Theater

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Laila Kelly-Walker as Dorothy, Aaron Steed as the Tinman, Jayla Bosley as the Cowardly Lion and Dakarai Langley as the Scarecrow in Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School's production of The Wiz. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

At first the lyrics were gentle and buttery, so soft they seemed to be flirting with the dark of the auditorium. What would I do if I could suddenly feel? And to know once again that what I feel is real? They swelled, certain as they crested through the room. What would I do if I could reach inside of me/And to know how it feels to say I like what I see? A tin suit and matching tin hat caught in the light. Behind it, a green-clad, glowering Wizard hung on to every word. 

So unfolds Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School's performance of The Wiz, running March 12 through 14 at the school's 177 College St. auditorium. Directed by theater teachers Christi Sargent and Valerie Vollono with help from staff in dance, music, theater, and choir, the musical is a dazzling, visually sumptuous, sweet and often magical celebration of Black and queer joy at a time when students may need it most. As it comes to the stage this week, it is also an invitation to find support—however unlikely—in the community one builds around them. 

Tickets and more information are available here

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Top: Ensemble members dance themselves into a tornado. Bottom: Langley takes center stage. He said that the musical, which he performed an adaptation of for Tia Russell Dance as a kid, reminds him of his childhood.

"There's a lot of darkness, a lot of sadness in the world right now," said Sargent, who first directed The Wiz at Co-Op in 2008.  "I think laughter is one of the best ways to connect … We've been talking a lot about joy as a tool to dismantle oppression."

It was the right fit for this year, both she and Vollono added: the school's last two musicals, Sister Act and Hairspray, are both fairly gender normative shows. The 2020 production of RENT, which was an early casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic, tested both staff and students emotionally over months of postponements and cancellations. When staff members started thinking of musical contenders for this year, The Wiz felt like a show that could bend gender, celebrate Blackness, and dive deep on exploration and unlikely friendship all in under three hours.   

And on the school's stage it does, with a mellifluous core and a twinkle-toed ensemble that never seems to stop moving. Based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wiz tells the story of native Kansan Dorothy (Laila Kelly-Walker), whose quiet life with her Aunt Em (Samaia Brantley) and sweet terrier Toto (Marangelie Colón) is uprooted when a tornado rips through her town. Dropped into the strange land of Oz, she meets a Scarecrow (a lithe-limbed Dakarai Langley), Tinman (Aaron Steed), Cowardly Lion (Jayla Bosley) and Addaperle (Adrian Solocio, performing in drag), the Good Witch of the North. 

Ten minutes in, she's begun to make a fantastical pilgrimage back to Kansas via Oz, complete with the sparkling slippers of the Wicked Witch of the East. 

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Laila Kelly-Walker as Dorothy. 

Each of these characters are looking for something—a missing heart, brains, the courage to go on—that will make them feel at home in their own bodies. Each wants to see the elusive Wiz (Alijah Steed), who has the power to fulfill wishes. And each doesn’t know what’s in store when he orders them to kill Evillene (Caden Davila-Sanabria), a steampunk, cackling Wicked Witch of the West who enslaves a fleet of flying monkeys and a sweatshop of Ozians named the Winkies. Just imagine the urge to escape from late-stage capitalism, except with Pez-colored tones and an earworm of a soundtrack.  

It’s fitting at Co-Op, where the student body is as diverse and polyphonic as the city itself. While its template may be Baum's book, The Wiz folds in cultural and historical references to Black America and the African Diaspora, from Evermean's graffiti-drenched walls and sweatshop-like lair to choreographed, musically scored nods to slavery, Jim Crow, and the continued economic disenfranchisement of Black Americans. When the film dropped in 1978, small-town Kansas became Harlem, a tornado transformed into an East Coast blizzard, and a carnivalesque version of New York City stood in for Oz. 

At Co-Op, students have made it very much their own, infusing the roles with sweet, sharp, still-evolving, out-of-the-box and often effervescent personalities and an interest in a more compassionate and tolerant world. As she takes the stage, Kelly-Walker wears a plaid skirt, sparkling Chuck Taylors and a cropped denim vest that reads We Will Not Be Erased, marrying punk with a rallying cry recognizable in both Black and LGBTQ+ spaces. She nails the part, shy and tentative at the beginning of the show with a growing curiosity about the world that fits her real life interests in choir, conducting, and nursing school.  

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Ensemble members become flying monkeys, forested land, a dancing poppy field and citizens of the Emerald City at different points in the show. 

“I really like to interpret the character,” she said at a tech rehearsal Thursday, adding that she’s pulled from iconic past performances of Shanice Williams, Stephanie Mills and Diana Ross. “I’m just so grateful.”

Around her, characters come to life: Langley lands the physical humor of a Scarecrow who is just relearning to walk and can't remember Dorothy's name, the Steed brothers, who are twins and juniors at the school, have built in a number of comedic pauses and sly double takes, Bosley shimmies, hip-checks, and belts her way into bravery, and Alijah Steed strikes a balance between disappointed matriarch (yes, we heard you suck your teeth) and fiery preacher, channeling a grandfather who still preaches each Sunday at New Haven's Powerhouse Temple Ministries.

No character misses in this show. As the tornado touches down, ensemble members dance themselves into a frenzy as lights twinkle and spin prismatically around them, turning lengths of black fabric into a growing storm. The scene changes, and they become a flock of hungry crows, field of huge, dancing red poppies, and physical, singing yellow brick road. As the moody Gatekeeper to the Emerald City, Max Hoffman wins the audience over with two precise snaps of a rainbow fan and whispered snippet of RuPaul's "Cover Girl" that is Drag Race ready. And by two minutes into the second act, a fearless Davila-Sanabria (atop a rolling cart, à la Anthony Rapp in "La Vie Boheme" but better) has landed somewhere between steampunk and the Joker, stealing the second act.

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Hoffman as the Gatekeeper. 

There's something poetic there. While the film is old enough to belong to past generations, many of the cast and crew members grew up with it, watching it alongside parents, grandparents, and siblings. Now—and in the same month a revival of the musical comes to Broadway with Co-Op grad Avery Wilson—they have the chance to put their own spin on it. At a tech rehearsal Thursday afternoon, Aaron Steed remembered sitting down with his brother when the two were seven or eight, and taking notes on the movie for the first time. Back then, he said, he didn't understand why his mom was so excited for them to see the film. Almost exactly a decade later, he gets it. 

"It's so much bigger than what I saw it to be when I was little," he said. "It brings Black joy and it shows us in a different context. It shines so much light on current events too."

For instance, he said, he thinks of the song "Slide Some Oil To Me" as an allegory for working together and forming bonds that help friends support each other. When Dorothy spots the Tinman, he's so rusted that he can't move his limbs anymore. Instead of walking by, she listens to his grunting, strained whisper until she's found a can of oil. As she pours it onto him, he stands and begins to dance, gliding across a patch of stage in a pool of bright light. Steed eases into the role, dancing swiftly as his lines spill across the stage. 

"This is a dream come true," he said. "I'm really going up in my potential."

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Top: Adrian Solocio as Addaperle.

That's also true for Bosley, a sophomore in the theater department who described The Wiz as "perfection" that she has loved since childhood. When she saw that the show was coming to Co-Op, she originally hoped to play Dorothy or one of the witches. Then she thought about how much her mom and sister loved the Cowardly Lion, and auditioned for the role. After an ensemble part last spring in Hairspray, she said she's excited to be front and center. 

"I feel like, very honored to be here," she said as she put the final touches on a shiny orange suit and matching hat that would glimmer beneath the stage’s hot lights. "The musical and rehearsal has been my favorite part of school ... this is really something that I love. I like sharing my interests and my art with everyone." 

In the rehearsal process, students have also built a tight-knit family that lasts well after the curtain has closed. They don't just ease on down the road, many said in interviews before rehearsal: they seem to float, holding each other up as they make their journey into the unknown. At some point, they realize that they’ve got each other. Really, that's all they needed in the first place. 

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Alijah Steed brings his grandfather, a preacher in New Haven, to the role.

"It's about home," Alijah Steed said during a five-minute intermission. "Everyone can get home. Everyone has a place where they're supposed to be, and where they're meant to be." 

"This is a show that brings everyone together," added Kelly-Walker, standing nearby before she took her place backstage for act two. "I think it helps me collaborate more with others."

At Thursday's rehearsal, that family bloomed across the auditorium, actors running through the space while teachers gave a five-minute countdown and added last minute touches to costumes, hair and makeup. As choir teacher Harriett Alfred guided students through warmups—Sing a little - sing a little - la la la—Vollono and Sargent took the stage, beaming alongside tech theater teacher Janie Alexander. Sargent stepped forward, outlining a full tech rehearsal that needed to be over by dinnertime.   

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Top: Caden Davila-Sanabria as Evillene. 

"What we do today needs to be repeated tomorrow and the next day," she said, weaving quickly through the intricacies of tech week. Around her, students had fallen to a hush, all ears. She took a final deep breath in. "Most important, we need to see you having so much fun from the stage—"

"Joy! Energy!" Vollono exclaimed, finishing the sentence. "That's what this show is all about." 

A few giggles drifted up from the stage, and then students fell into silence as the lights went down. An enchanted world of painted cardboard and crepe sat just behind the curtain. In the wings, ensemble members took their places in long skirts meant to billow out like a windy tornado. Kelly-Walker and Brantley found their places at the sides of the auditorium. It was time to make magic. 

The Wiz runs at Co-Op March 12 through 14. Tickets and more information are available here