Co-Op Students Step Out On Faith

Lucy Gellman | March 15th, 2022

Co-Op Students Step Out On Faith

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

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Rachel Kearse as Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Sister Mary Clarence lifted her arms high above her head and began to move her feet back and forth to the music. A baton rested between her fingers, pointed heavenward. She glided across the stage, moving from a piano to a black-and-white knot of nuns. Her eyes darted to Sister Mary Robert. It was time. As percussion swooped in beneath them, Robert took a deep breath, opened her mouth, and found her voice. The outline of a church rose behind them. 

In the white and orange light that fell across the sisters’ faces, everything felt holy.

Exactly two years after Covid-19 shut down their performance of RENT, students at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School have returned for a triumphant, funny, smart, and sizzling production of Sister Act with a cast and crew relearning to make musical theater in person. Directed by drama teacher Robert Esposito and senior Sofia Carrillo, the play runs at the school March 15 through 17 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here.

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Top: Rachel Kearse as Deloris Van Cartier and Ajibola “Keeme” Tajudeen as Lt. "Sweaty Eddie" Souther. Bottom: Jizir Feliciano as Monsignor O'Hara. 

“We’re rebuilding,” Esposito said before a dress rehearsal Friday, as students buzzed around the auditorium in slinky sequins, wide-legged pants, and big hair that made the 1970s feel alive again. “It’s been a long two years. It’s very exciting, and it’s a blessing, and it’s beautiful. I wanted to do something fun, filled with joy, filled with hope. This is literally our welcome back, our grand moment.”

It is a Co-Op family affair, with choreography from dance teacher Christine Kershaw-Hobson, musical direction from 2014 alum Kevin James, a live pit helmed by band director Patrick Smith, and vocal direction from choral music teacher Harriett Alfred. English teacher Valerie Vollano, who directed the RENT that never saw an audience, is back as the stage manager. While administrators chose Sister Act because it included streaming rights, Esposito said they’re all breathing a collective sigh of relief that it is safely in-person.

The show’s leads—and most of the students holding it down behind the scenes—are seniors who have lived through a high school experience totally upended by Covid-19.  Several were just sophomores when the pandemic hit New Haven, and have lost family members, taken jobs to support their loved ones, and spent years battling depression and anxiety as schools pivot back to in-person learning. After two years, the play is their musical farewell to the student body and to each other. For many of them, it’s also that which is allowing them to heal. 

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Rachel Kearse and Aaron Steed.

Set in 1970s Philadelphia and based on the 1992 film of the same name, Sister Act follows aspiring singer Deloris Van Cartier (senior Rachel Kearse), who is trying to break into the city’s club scene when she walks in on her no-good-very-bad-also-married lover Curtis Jackson (freshman Aaron Steed) committing a murder. When she flees to the Philadelphia Police, Lieutenant Eddie Souther’s (senior Ajibola “Keeme” Tajudeen) quick thinking lands her in a convent as part of the Witness Protection Program.

From the moment she arrives in high-heeled pink boots, it’s clear that she and the severe, domineering, wonderfully dour Mother Superior (senior Lauren Wiedenmann) are both about to be tested by something far greater than themselves. Cue Deloris’ transformation into Sister Mary Clarence, whose work directing the church’s choir (or as Esposito jokes, the “nunsemble”) sets the stage for the show’s rich, harmonious and often laughter-flecked heartbeat.

Kearse is a natural, fiery and funny when her frustration bubbles to the surface and she can’t contain it, but also capable of a softness that seems well beyond her years. From the moment she and Wiedenmann share space, their chemistry is magnetic, based equally in the humor and the tension of their forced coexistence. Wiedenmann, in turn, has made the role very much her own, sometimes communicating as much with a scowl, balled-up fist, or narrowed, disapproving glare as she does with deep, resonant vocals. There’s a sense that both of them have learned the ins and outs of disco and Donna Summer, and come to wildly different conclusions.

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Top: Ensemble members. Bottom: Kearse and Lauren Wiedenmann. 

It is, strangely, also the perfect relationship to watch after months of extreme isolation, new ways of negotiating shared space, and a world in which it is increasingly difficult to find any sort of common ground. In one of the work’s most moving sequences, the two find a way to reach a resolution, and save each other’s lives in the process. In the audience, we see that we too have the power to transform a situation if we work collectively to do it.

The magic of the show, which feels heaven-sent, is that there is no student who hasn’t risen to the challenge, no matter how large or small their role. Monsignor O’Hara (senior Jizir Feliciano) can teach the gospel, but he’s most fun to watch when he’s vibing to the holy spirit. As Sister Mary Robert—a role very different from her freewheeling Mimi in RENT—senior Autymn Brown opens herself beautifully to revelation with “The Life I Never Led,” letting herself savor the lyrics as she steps into the spotlight. Around her, members of the nunsemble including Kayleigh Householder, Gabby Doctor, Lillian Palluzzi and Selena Zamora turn this obedient, once-hushed group of celibate ladies into a fierce girl band in the making. 

Tajudeen, who has owned the stage from the moment he crossed it as a baby-faced piragüero four years ago, turns “Sweaty Eddie” Souther into a fully realized human that the audience is rooting for, whether he is building a web of evidence at work or dancing among an ensemble in a disco-drenched dream sequence. Doctor, a senior who plays the ancient Sister Mary Theresa, has a sense of comedic timing (“I can hear you!” she sputters after a fellow nun makes a quip about her age, and the line lands perfectly).

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Zamir Alford, Matthew Romo and Christopher Cazarin.

And as Curtis’ friends Joey, TJ, and Pablo, seniors Christopher Cazarin and Zamir Alford and junior Matthew Romo sell a vision of three people completely under Steed’s mellifluous spell. When they spin, side-step, and jazz hands their way through Curtis’ plan to take Deloris out in “When I Find My Baby” it's the total schmaltz of their choreography that undercuts the discomfort of the lyrics. 

After two full years (and three academic years) that have included forays into virtual musical theater and a fully devised play-by-mail project, there’s a sense that students are so ready to be back they might jog right from the stage into the audience—and indeed, some of the play’s most unexpected and thrilling sequences take place when they do. In a play that does not shy away from gun violence, not-subtle racism, housing insecurity, and infidelity, teachers trust students to understand the material, and the work is better for it. What wins out is the joy, with nods to Summer, Gloria Gaynor, Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang that have aged surprisingly well as these young voices take them on.   

During Friday’s dress rehearsal, an infectious energy vibrated through the space as students flooded onto the stage, forming a circle around Esposito. Pacing in the center, he led them through tongue-twisting warm ups before sending them to places. From the outside, someone in the audience could only see a mix of sequined bell bottoms, and pops of bright wool and polyester as ensemble members pulled on their jackets and ties.   

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Top: Gabby Doctor (center) brings humor to the role Sister Mary Theresa. Esposito: "I wanted to do something fun, filled with joy, filled with hope. This is literally our welcome back, our grand moment.”

“She stood on the balcony!” Esposito called, his arms cutting through the air as he walked.

“She stood on the balcony!” students called back.

“Inexplicably hiccuping!” he shot back.

“Inexplicably hiccuping!”

“And amicably welcoming him up!” Esposito leaned into the phrase, as if he too was standing on an imaginary balcony.

“And amicably welcoming him up!” Every eye remained fixed on the center of the circle as students strung the full sentence together.

As they took their places, members of a student tech crew scurried through the theater, slipping in behind scripts and small clip-on lamps. Members of the pit sat ready at their instruments and watched actors disappear into the wings. The run-through was ready to begin. As Smith cued up the band, it felt like the school was officially back. 

“I Think That’s Where The Healing Comes From”

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Senior Autymn Brown. "Art is able to connect us together again," she said during dinner after Friday's rehearsal. "That's like, the glue to our friendship honestly. Like, for us being able to fall back on that knowing that we have that passion."

In the cafeteria after Friday’s rehearsal, several of the seniors gathered around one table, trading notes over bites of pizza, chicken and brownies. For many of them, the musical has laid a path back to healing after their sophomore show became an early casualty of the pandemic, and Covid kept them learning online for over two semesters.

Tajudeen, who lives in Bridgeport, said that returning to school was the first step in feeling like he could bounce fully back from the past two years. For months, he’s used writing poetry and music as a way to cope with not being onstage or in rehearsal. Now that he and his peers are back, they’re trying to create something not only for themselves, but for the underclassmen who spent middle school on a screen.

“We've worked really hard to build the Co-Op culture back, because there are so many kids who haven't experienced that culture,” he said. “To be in school is the recovery process.”

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Covid has also made them closer, Kearse added. She and Tajudeen call each other before and after school, just to check in, and sing together on Facetime with Brown and Wiedenmann when rehearsal alone isn’t enough. When school announced an early dismissal due to weather last Wednesday, she and Brown remembered feeling like students were back in March 2020. They held their breath until tech rehearsals resumed.

“You really love these people and you count on them,” Kearse said. “You come, and you may go through whatever you go through in the day to day when you leave, but when you come [to rehearsal], you stay here for hours and hours and hours, these are the faces you see. You tend to grow more with them and with each other. I think that that's where the healing comes from.”

There’s no substitute for being back, Wiedenmann added. While students continued to make work during the pandemic, she struggled mentally to stay afloat, and found that she needed to turn inward and work on herself before she could work on her friendships. When she returned this year, she felt more ready than she had ever been to step into a different character’s shoes onstage—and to be there for her friends as they applied to college, auditioned for plays, received acceptances and rehearsed their lines for Sister Act. She wrote every single one of her college essays on the power of art. 

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Lauren Wiedenmann: "I'm just really glad to be back, and the show has brought me so much joy."

“It was just mentally a really rough, rough, rough time,” she said of the months students spent online. “I'm just really glad to be back, and the show has brought me so much joy. Like, going from like, starting off rehearsal being like 'I don't feel connected' to feeling like a family. I think that's the best thing about theater.”

Now, they said, they’re anxious about the next big step—leaving each other for college in the fall. As acceptances come in (all of them have an idea of where they are headed, but readers can look for that information when the Arts Paper covers Co-Op graduation in June), they’ve started to talk about how they’ll stay connected across the distance. They are perhaps uniquely suited to answer that question—because they’ve done it already.

Tajudeen added that he sees the students—and their generation—as part of a growing young Black arts movement born out of the stress of the pandemic. In June 2020, he and Wiedenmann were part of a small group that led the school’s Youth Leaders Council in a Juneteenth protest with poetry, song, song and chanting. They and several of their peers are involved in City Wide Youth Coalition and the New Haven Climate Movement, where they are able to work with other New Haven Public Schools students to push systemic change.

“The arts will lift us up in those moments,” he said. “And we will end up lifting each other up.”

Sister Act runs at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School March 15 through 17 at 6:30 p.m. There is a streaming option on the 17th. For more information, visit the school's website