Before her career as a Puerto Rican singer and bandleader took off more than two decades ago, Taina Asili felt right at home on the musical theater stage. She will return to the art form on Thursday at the Schenectady Light Opera Company in downtown Schenectady when she takes on the role of Abuela Claudia in a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
“I haven’t done theater since my college days,” said Asili, a Binghamton native and Albany resident since 2007. “But theater is really how I discovered music. My father was a musician and my mother a dancer, so I grew up in a real family of artists. Basically, I trained in opera and musical theater from the age of 9 until the age of 20.
More recently, she has toured nationwide and across Europe with her eight-piece band, “Asili y la Banda Rebelde” (Rebel Band), and in January 2017 performed for over 500,000 people at the Women’s March on Washington. . Two months later, she released a video, “No Es Mi Presidente” (He’s Not My President), which received national recognition and a positive review from Rolling Stone magazine.
“I kind of left the world of musical theater as my writing and performing career progressed,” said Asili, who went to SUNY-Binghamton for her undergraduate degree before leaving. earn a master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College. “But I always wanted to get back to it. I was contacted by the director of this show and my schedule went well, so I said yes.
Peter Caracappa runs the show for SLOC, and while the auditions went well, he still hasn’t found his Abuela Claudia.
“We had a lot of great talent that showed up for the auditions, but we didn’t really have anyone we felt was suitable to play Abuela Claudia,” Caracappa said. “So like you have to do sometimes in community theater, you have to network. I asked a friend of a friend if Taina might be interested. I knew she had roots in musical theater and I had a feeling she would fit the role perfectly.
Asili’s brother was also of the same opinion.
“Even before I was contacted by the show’s director, my brother had seen some publicity auditions and suggested I audition for the role,” Asili said. “I told him, ‘No way, I don’t have time.’ I knew I couldn’t find a place to put that in my life. But then Peter contacted me and asked me, and I thought, ‘this is a second sign to do this.’ Then I looked at the program and it happens to fit perfectly between my summer tour and my fall tour.
The fact that she felt extremely connected to the character was also part of Asili’s decision-making process.
“My grandmother was like the Claudia character,” said Asili, whose grandmother came to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1940s. “Claudia came from Cuba, my grandmother from Puerto Rico. They were both important grandmother figures to people they were unrelated to. So this role is a wonderful opportunity to play someone who speaks so deeply to my cultural background. She faces some of the same things my grandmother faced, such as discrimination, poverty and language barriers.
The kind of Afro-Latin music, reggae and high-energy rock that Asili usually performs is perfect for the role of Claudia. “In the Heights” was Miranda’s first musical and takes place over a three-day period in a predominantly Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. Though it may be overshadowed by the smash hit of “Hamilton,” it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. Asili hasn’t seen a staging of the show, but she knows the music very well.
“I listened to the soundtrack and I’m having a great time working on the show with a wonderful cast of actors,” Asili said. “I love traveling and performing with my small group of musicians, but having a cast of 21 actors and connecting with all of them in this wonderful piece of theater is truly magical.”
“We are absolutely thrilled to have Taina involved with this show,” Caracappa said. “She has a huge fan base all over the country, and maybe we’ll have people coming to the show who don’t usually show up. She’s a huge talent with a great voice, and she’s very authentic to Claudia’s character.
Thursday’s preview at SLOC will serve as a benefit for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
“I believe very much in the resilience, strength and power of the Puerto Rican people,” said Asili, who plans to release a documentary about Puerto Rico’s struggle to recover later this year. “We want to bring healing and justice. That’s what inspires me, and doing this kind of work should inspire all of us.
Asili’s husband, Gaetano Vaccaro, is a member of his band and a native of Albany. The couple have two children.
“I’m upstate, I’m a parent, and I wanted to raise my kids upstate, and Albany is where my husband is from,” said Asili, co-founder of New York State Prisoner Justice. Network and a board of directors. member of Soul Fire Farm, a non-profit group whose mission is to “end racism and injustice in our food system”.
Joining Asili on stage will be Jonathan Lajas as Usnavi, Carmen Lookshire as Nina and Amanda Serrano as Vanessa. Dan Galliher is the musical director and Gregory Marsh is the choreographer.
“In the Heights”
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8:00 p.m. Thursday, the preview is a benefit for Puerto Rico hurricane victims; The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs through September 30; performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $28 – $22
MORE INFO: 1-877-350-7378, or visit www.sloctheater.org
More from The Daily Gazette: