KENNESAW, Ga. | Mar 21, 2023
Iconic rock musical has sustained immediacy and theatrical power for over 25 years
Kennesaw State University Department of Theatre and Performance Studies (TPS) will present “Rent” April 6-16 at the Stillwell Theater on the Kennesaw campus. The iconic rock musical—with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson—offers an intimate encounter with a diverse group of young artists living in the lower east side of New York as they struggle to make ends meet during the siege of HIV Aids. Their relationships reinforce the power of a supportive community, and, most of all, the hope and joy that love offers amidst loss and despair.
Director Amanda Wansa Morgan, coordinator of Musical Theatre and associate professor of Theatre & Performance Studies, says that “Rent” revolutionized the art form of musical theatre, as its songs quickly found their way into popular music by incorporating rock music. “That hadn’t been heard since ‘Hair’ in 1968,” she explains, “and the average American was not only interested, but maybe had their hearts and minds educated from seeing theatre.” Larson combined Broadway traditions with contemporary music in a complex way, as the “songs are structured like pop songs—they have pop song structures and are very memorable.” Audience members may be surprised that not only is there just one song that everyone knows, but most people will be surprised by just how many songs they know.
“Rent” became “something that was a lot more in the public consciousness across America, certainly more so than most musicals. It’s the kind of show that high schoolers talked about at their lockers,” adds Chuck Meacham, chair of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies.
While most of the students performing in this KSU production, set in 1992, weren’t even born when “Rent” debuted in 1996 after the AIDS epidemic exploded in the late 1980’s, the actors didn’t have to stretch too much to understand the hardships, especially growing up during tough economic times and COVID-19. “Students’ rent is going up, and we are having conversations about how to afford eggs vs. books for school. If we did this show ten years ago, we might have to explain a lot more to the cast,” says Morgan.
TPS student Lance Avery Brown, who plays Benny, understands the daily challenges. “College students can relate to the problems that the characters of ‘Rent’ are going through; the characters are close in age. They are asking questions that people in their early 20’s wor
ry about, like ‘How am I going to get my rent on time? What is my next meal going to be? How can I be successful? Where do I even start?” Brown adds that it’s important to see that the production covers day-to-day experiences in life, on top of the various themes in “Rent.”
TPS student and “Rent” Assistant Director Issa Solís describes the themes of the play as “intersectionality” because “it recognizes that people can have overlapping marginalized identities which can marginalize them even further. In ‘Rent,’ there are many characters with intersectionalities, which personifies these struggles and helps a modern audience to understand the privileges they have, in order to use that privilege for good,” she says.
Of course, Larson addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis head on in “Rent.” Patrons will notice quilts on either side of the stage; they are just two of thousands of pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. TPS is the only current host of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the entire Southeast region of the United States. Morgan notes that “Rent” attempts to “humanize the stories of those affected by AIDS as well as additional ills of our society.”
Lighting designer and TPS student Mackenzie “Mack” Scales hopes that audiences will take away several messages, including “appreciation for the community as well as the struggles those in our community experience—like addiction and identity—and I hope audiences can take ideas away to better support the community around them.”
Solís wishes that audiences will “try to walk a mile in the shoes of a character whose identity does not resemble their own. Take in their life experiences, understand their soul. Are you as different as you thought you were at first? Or are we all just ‘measuring [our lives] in love?’”