[Content warning: This piece discusses sexual assault, physical abuse and suicide.]
Future Waitstaff of America—commenly known as FWA—is Vassar’s only theater group dedicated solely to musical theater, and from Nov. 16 to 18, the group will be presenting the undisputed classic “Spring Awakening” in the Shiva Theater. Quoting on the event page, FWA describes their latest production as “An angsty rock musical adaptation of the seminal play about the trials and tribulations of growing up.” Directed by Henery Wyand ’20, “Spring Awakening” is originally a Broadway adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 German play of the same name, with music by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Slater.
While the musical is set in late 19th-century Germany, FWA’s adaptation infuses the musical with influences from the 1990s. The show revolves around the lives of young adolescents as they discover their sexualities, depicting their journeys as they struggle with a slew of tumultuous events that accompany their sexual awakening. Loaded with heavy and potentially troubling subject matter, “Spring Awakening” examines issues ranging from sexual assault and teenage pregnancy to pedophilia, incest, physical abuse and suicide.
Wyand illuminated on the ways in which he aimed to make FWA’s production an opportunity for inclusive community building for queer people of color: “As a team, we really wanted to bring queer students of color to the center. Time and time again, I’ve noticed that queer people of color are underrepresented in Vassar’s theater community. I wanted to make the scene of this production a space that is inclusive for those who are repeatedly marginalized, particularly when we’re dealing with serious subject matter such as sexual assault, which disproportionately affects queer POCs.”
The theme of sexual assault is one that Wyand elaborated on as particularly relevant to Vassar’s campus: “I think it’s really important for us to be putting on a show that deals with the issue of rape because we want audiences to think about how this issue isn’t far away, but rather exists right here on our own campus. We want students to be cognizant of this subject matter because it deeply impacts so many people around them, especially, as I’ve mentioned, their fellow students of color.”
Alice Woo ’21, who plays the female lead Wend- la, commented on the group’s behind-the-scenes process in dealing with these potentially triggering issues: “Because the play deals with such heavy subject matter, it was really fundamental in bringing us closer together as a cast. We shared a common bond over the difficult task we all had to take on in terms of how to best approach and enact these topics.”
While the cast wanted to stay as loyal to the original musical adaptation as possible, they did make certain decisions regarding what to include in their show in order ensure that the audience did not misinterpret the sentiment they were trying to convey. “The actual screenplay blurs the lines on rape and consent, creating a situation that could perpetuate rape myths like ‘No actually means yes,’” explained Woo. “We took the decision to explicitly have Wendla resist the rape, even though this aspect is left ambiguous in the Broadway musical because we don’t want to send mixed signals to the audience that could potentially romanticize rape fantasies which already run rampant. We wanted to demonstrate the complexity of young love while still taking a clear stance regarding the importance of consent.”
Stage Manager Larissa Archondo ’20 described the impression that the cast hoped to leave on viewers: “For audiences who have been exposed to the issues of sexual violence, we want them to know that they aren’t alone. For other audience members, we hope that this musical sends them a clear message about how it’s time to wake up and really think about these issues.” In the same vein, Woo comments, “It details navigating their lives from there on when faced with such a situation.”
The play further explores how relationships between adults and adolescents can take on a stifling level of conservative stoicism where, in attempting to shelter teenagers from the world of sexuality and desire, adult authorities and parental figures may effectively abandon them to discover their bodies and cravings all on their own.
With regards to this lack of support from adult figures, Woo elaborated on the impact the cast hopes to have on the audience: “As a coming-of-age story that explores the loss of innocence of 14- to 15-year-olds, we want audiences to leave with some insight into the troubled relationships adolescents can have with their families, and how the lack of openness exhibited by adult role models can really contribute to the uninformed decisions made by the youth about love and sex and sexuality— deci- sions that can really end up harming them and the people they associate with. It comments on how important honesty is in familial relationships.”
The production also recognizes how the intersecting identities of queer people of color can provide cast members with a unique and authentic standpoint, given that their show directly deals with the discovery of non-heteronormative sexuality. As Archondo elaborated, “It’s so important to have queer cast members as a part of the team who can lend that validity to the production and tell the story of a struggle that they are actually acquainted with. It’s only fair to have these populations gain visibility in the realm of theater.”
This much-awaited performance of a show that won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, is sure to be an incredibly moving performance that will leave audiences feeling both heavy-hearted and emotionally enlightened, all the while accentuating the passion and poignancy with which the cast approached their show with an eccentric pop-rock soundtrack.