“This is a different show for JSU,” Traynor said. “And that’s a good thing — a very, very good thing. Not only for the students in the show, but for the audience, too.”
Rent is a musical update of the opera La bohème as told through the yearlong struggles of a group of starving young artists and musicians living in New York’s Alphabet City in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Rent, which serves as the autobiography of playwright Jonathan Larson — who won posthumous Pulitzer Prize and Tony awards for his work — tackles such challenging themes as addiction, homosexuality, freedom of speech, homophobia and AIDS.
Such a backdrop and people’s reaction to them makes Rent a risky undertaking, Traynor says.
“Is this controversial … in our little niche of the world, it absolutely qualifies as controversial,” he said. “But from my own perspective — not at all, the human element of this play far outweighs any perceived controversy.”
There is a place for everything in the theater. There is a place for laughter and light entertainment, and there is a place for productions with a deeper message.
“We don’t want to always be choosing safe productions,” Traynor said. “We need to challenge ideas and thought processes. There’s nothing wrong with making people think. Ultimately, life imitates art. That’s what’s happening here; there’s never been a more stark, realistic musical than Rent.”
Autumn Brown, who plays Mimi, a heroin-addicted dancer who’s HIV-positive, says Rent has the ability to open minds to a worldview many wouldn’t recognize otherwise.
“There are controversial topics in this play, but I’d say it’s more provocative than controversial because it makes people think about illnesses, like AIDS, that they’d almost rather ignore,” the 22-year-old Brown said. “These characters are dealing with the fact that they are going to die. They have to make the best of their lives right now because for them, there’s no day but today.
“I think that’s something we could all learn from.”
Though the subject matter is gritty, that’s what makes it powerful, explains Jacob Cummings, who plays Benny, the New York City developer and landlord who’s often at odds with the cast of artists and musicians.
“This is real life,” Cummings said. “To water it down … the authenticity is what makes it Rent. People having to live day-to-day, never knowing what the next day will bring.”
Confronting these issues, if even for a couple of hours, could very well change people’s opinions, if only they will give it a chance, Cummings adds.
“In a lot of ways, we’ve put these shows on the backburner because we’re so timid and scared that someone will get offended. We can’t worry that people might get offended because the show has a gay character or characters with AIDS. Instead of doing a show where everything is colored in and perfect and wonderful, Rent rips that all away and puts real life up on stage.
“People can either turn away and be offended or they can let it be a life lesson.”
Courting such controversy has its downside. Of the 22 cast members in Rent, Traynor knows of at least five who have told their parents not to come see the show. Jacob Cummings, whose father is a Baptist minister, is among them. But he believes it’s worth the sacrifice.
“It’s hard for people who are close to you to see you on stage and understand that I’m playing a role … it’s not really me,” Cummings explained. “My parents may not be there, but I feel like the message of the show is more important than that. The time has come for us to stand up for what we believe in.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my university for putting on this show.”
And while it’s the backdrop of AIDS and homosexuality that might make for the best headlines, Rent is about so much more.
“There’s that common misconception that Rent is about AIDS,” Traynor said. “It’s really about survival, love and friendship. It’s about life and making the most out of the time we have together.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
What: Musical about life in NYC during the AIDS epidemic
When: Today and Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Feb. 23-25 at 7 p.m., Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.
Where: Ernest Stone Performing Arts Center, corner of 11th Street and Church Avenue, JSU campus
How much: $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and JSU personnel, $10 for students, military and children. Adult content.
Contact: 256-782-5648 or visit www.jsu.edu/drama