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Ongoing Struggle

The stage is set, literally; it is Friday night in the Katzen Studio Theater and I am sitting in the third row. The black box stage is sparse except for scattered music stands and the musicians tuning their instruments. The audience is gathered to see We Are Here, Jarrett Murray’s senior recital, a musical on homeless LGBTQ youth. The cast is small, only four AU student actors: Whitney Chante'l (Chay), James Mernin (Jonathan), Alice Bershtein (Corey), Megan Ann Robbins (Angelica), and the director: Sam Baum. The instrumentalists include: Austin Jaffe (Piano), Jess Bauer (Violin), Alain Xiong-Calmes (Cello), Andrew Samson (Clarinet), Griffin Tanner (Guitar), John Salzillo (Bass), Nate Gibson (Drums), and Jarrett himself (Conductor).

Jarrett walks out and the hush in the theater is broken; his arrival is met with applause. He turns to us and opens with a beaming smile and a simple “enjoy the show.” What follows is an hour of an audience transfixed by the stories of four characters whose circumstances lead them to living on the streets, as told through song and dialogue. We are met with Corey, a choir girl in a religious family who is cast out of her house until she outgrows her lesbian “phase”; Chay, a transgender woman who grows up in foster care and turns to prostitution to pay for her transition surgery; Jonathon, a gay man who is forced to attend a conversion therapy camp by his own parents; and Angelica, a lesbian woman struggling with alcoholism and prostitution who leaves home because of a strung out, mother dealing with drug addiction and a grandmother who makes Angelica believe something is wrong with her. Each song, ranging from rock to jazz to soul, tells a story of the trials faced by these characters, their desire to be understood, to be considered normal by their families and those around them. Their solace comes from one another and the shelter home they meet at to share their troubles, although some characters (such as Chay) have difficulty opening up. In the final song, the characters unite singing about the power of acknowledgment and acceptance in heartfelt harmony. Despite the recital being a staged reading, the effect of a complete performance shone through in the raw emotions of the actors and everyone involved in the production. 

A few days after the performance, I had the pleasure of asking Jarrett a couple questions regarding his inspiration and his process creating this new work.

Q: “What inspired you to center your senior recital on the topic of the LGBTQ community?”

Jarrett:Musical theater is such an accessible platform for all people. It's easy to understand and it's easy to connect with. So I wanted to use that platform as a form of edutainment [education and entertainment]. And I picked the topic because 1) with our current political climate it's relevant. 2) I wanted to show kind of the other side of pride, because of the normalization of LGBT humans the coming out age has dropped and this is forcing our country to progress faster and yet there are still many families here that would reject their child because of who they are.”

Q: “Can you talk a little about your composing process for this show in terms of how long it took, musical influences, or difficulties you encountered?”

Jarrett: “Sure, I started the research at the beginning of the fall semester and finished sometime in November. And the author, Manna-Symone Middlebrooks, used the research and notes I collected (along with her own) to create the first draft of the book. So, once I had the characters I was writing for, I had to give them a voice and write them all in a certain style. Corey had a more soulful sound. Angelica's was jazzy. Johnathan's was rockish. And Chay's was angsty. To write the music it took me about two months.”

These insights from Jarrett highlight even more clearly the efforts he made in the name of advocacy by creating this work. Jarrett’s show reminds us that injustices exist as realities for many people in our country. As Jarrett previously mentioned, the normalization of LGBTQ persons is a positive trend in today’s society because it implies a move toward acceptance. However, even though progress has been made, there are still children in the LGBTQ community that face not being accepted, being disowned, and even being kicked out of their homes because of their sexual preferences. Art that raises awareness and cultivates empathy for such ongoing human rights issues has an opportunity to call attention to disadvantaged and disregarded groups, insisting that their voices be heard in the cries of “we are here.”

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