A St. Louis theater company opens a show by playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda tonight. No, it’s not the blockbuster “Hamilton,” although of course that’s what Miranda is known for.
R-S Theatrics is staging “21 Chump Street,” an earlier, shorter musical, as part of trio of one-acts named “Love? Actually … .” It definitely has those Miranda hallmarks: hip-hop, social issues and moral questions, in its telling of a real-life story of love, deception and a drug sting in a Palm Beach, Fla. high school.
R-S artistic director Christina Rios fell in love with the story. She secured the rights to the play and gave a lot of thought to when, and how, she’d present it.
“I didn’t want to make it look like I’d shoe-horned this into a season — to go, ‘Hey, but the ‘Hamilton’ guy wrote this,’” Rios said. “So I sat on it for many, many months.”
‘Take the money’
The public radio show “This American Life” first featured the story behind “21 Chump Street,” in 2012.
Miranda wrote the one-act play after hearing the tale of 18-year-old honor student Justin Laboy of Palm Beach, Fla. The title is a nod to the late 1980s TV show and, later, a movie called “21 Jump Street.”
Laboy fell in love with a new student who said her name was Naomi Rodriguez.
“I just got really close to her; I got attached real quick,” Laboy said, in the radio interview.
She waved away Laboy’s advances but eventually asked him to get her some marijuana. Turns out, she was a 25-year-old undercover cop.
Laboy didn't smoke pot but he was so smitten he found a way to get it. No spoilers here: in the play, a narrator makes sure theater-goers know what Laboy can’t see. Kelvin Urday, who plays the role, said he can understand how the high-schooler fell for the ruse.
“The problem with first love is that it like blinds you from everything else that’s going on,” Urday said.
Natasha Toro plays the part of Naomi. Toro said she knows it may be difficult for audiences to like her character, especially when she browbeats Laboy into closing the deal by urging him to “take the money.”
“It doesn’t look good on her part, morally,” Toro said. “But at the same time when you’re working and you’ve got to get a job done, sometimes it’s whatever you’ve got to do.”
‘What art can do’
The question audiences are left with is: Does the effort to keep drugs out of schools justify entrapment? Producer Rios hopes theater-goers will debate the issue long after the curtain comes down. She also hopes local Latinos will be validated by seeing themselves on stage.
“For years I have watched myself being portrayed by people who don’t look like me,” Rios said.
Rios will bring a much bigger cast of Latino actors onstage next year when R-S Theatrics presents another, full-length Miranda play: “In the Heights.”
It’s about a mostly Dominican-American New York City neighborhood called Washington Heights. The play’s getting more attention now that “Hamilton” is causing a frenzy in the theater world.
But Rios and her small theater company have no designs on ever producing “Hamilton,” although she’d love to see it in St. Louis.
She’ll never forget how after she saw the blockbuster in New York, another young Latina woman approached her. She was amazed that a stage filled with people of color could capture a mainstream audience.
“She took my hand and she said, ‘Did you ever think?’ And I said, ‘No,’” Rios said. “And that’s what art can do. I mean it can change your entire life.”
Rios has no illusions that “21 Chump Street” will have anywhere near that kind of impact. She does hope that it and “In the Heights” will attract new audiences.
“If it’s a draw, I hope it’s because it’s going to bring people to our theater — to a theater— where they might never have gone before,” Rios said.
"21 Chump Street" will be staged at the Westport Plaza Playhouse. Future R-S Theatrics productions will take place at the new .ZACK performance space in Grand Center.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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