A ‘color-conscious’ look at mental illness in Vanguard’s ‘Next to Normal’
By JONI MAE DE LOS SANTOS
For Montclair Local
When “Next to Normal” takes the stage at Montclair’s Vanguard Theater Company Nov. 10, the script will be familiar to those who know the show. But the presentation will be something they’ve never seen before.
As in any production, Vanguard’s version of “Next to Normal” will center on a mother with bipolar disorder and the impact her mental health struggle has on herself and her family, along with the heavy burdens of suburban life. The family will tackle themes of grief, depression and suicide,
But founding Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark said she made specific “color-conscious” choices not written into the original script — among them, casting a Black actress, Erica Dorfler, as mother Diana. A white actor, Lou Steele, will play the family’s father.
Mental health, Freeman Clark said, is “not a topic that is often discussed openly in Black families and Black communities. It’s sometimes seen as a weakness and a lack of strength, and as Black people, we struggle already with so many stigmas and stereotypes.”
Performers including the couple’s two children — teens Gabe and Natalie — have been double cast. On even-numbered performances, Charlie Fusari, who is white, will play Gabe; Racquel Williams, who is Black, will be Natalie. On odd-numbered performances, the teens’ races will be flipped — Marcus Beckett, who is Black, will be Gabe; Josslyn Shaw, who is white, will be Natalie.
Henry, a love interest for Natalie, is double cast as well. Draytin Freude, who is white, will be in the even-numbered shows, and Aaron Bowes, who is Black, will be in the odd-numbered shows. The show additionally features Morgan Scott as Dr. Fine/Madden.
Freeman Clark, who said as a Black actress she knew the experience of being “boxed in” to certain roles, hopes the casting will bring new perspectives to the show.
“We’re not changing the text. The text is as written, but we experience those stories in two different ways as the complexions of the cast shift,” Freeman Clark said. “It’s been an exciting process for us to see how the stories are the same, yet different.”
Freeman Clark aims to follow the theater’s philosophy of “DREAM,” which stands for diversity, reciprocity, education, activism and mentorship. The theater company also offers enriched educational programs for children as young as 7 years old, mentorship programs that have taken a small pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The theater moved into its new home on Bloomfield Avenue this summer, after delays also caused by the pandemic.
For the new adaptation, the theater company is partnering with the nonprofit Darkness Rising Project. The non-profit offers community wellness workshops geared toward people of color, inspirational cover songs, visual albums and live concerts. Several performances will feature talk-backs with mental health professionals, where they will discuss issues of care, stigma in communities of color and ways to connect with resources.
“In choosing ‘Next to Normal’ as its premiere main stage show in its new theater, Vanguard was mindful of the disparities in diagnosis and healthcare for mental illness,” the theater said in an announcement of the show. “According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health Facts for African Americans, while the rate of bipolar disorder is the same among Black Americans as it is among other Americans, Black Americans are less likely to receive a diagnosis and, therefore, treatment for this illness.
“And Black adults are also less likely to receive guideline-consistent care, less frequently included in research, and more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists). Stigma and judgment prevent Black and African American people from seeking treatment for their mental illnesses. When Black Americans do seek treatment, they are offered medication or therapy at lower rates than the general population.”
Freeman Clark said she believes there is something in the musical for everyone. It is a story about finding one's own individual path, no matter how illogical or unpopular. She hopes audiences will relate to someone onstage.
“The last lyric in the piece is, ‘There will be light,’ and so much of this musical is the search for light.” Freeman Clark said. “What I think they’ll end up finding in the end is that the light comes from within. You cannot count on someone else to be that light for you.”
The show will run from Nov. 10 through 21 at the Vanguard Theater, located at 180 Bloomfield Ave. Tickets are available for purchase at vanguardtheatercompany.org.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Janeece Freeman-Clark's name and listied an incorrect date for the opening of "Next to Normal."