This past Saturday, Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC) graced El Cerrito High School’s theater with its opening performance of A Man Of No Importance, the last show of their 2018-19 season. The night before, director Jennifer Boesing reminded the cast, “you have to really listen and respond and that keeps the scene alive.” She has stressed this throughout the entire process, to depart from the pattern of saying a line the same way in every rehearsal, like muscle memory. On the last rehearsal before tech week, the cast did the traditional “living room read,” returning the actors to the words and their intentions in the director’s house. “You’re going into tech and there’s going to be costumes and light and mics and so many things that are going to throw you off,” said Zev Marx-Kahn, a senior at Berkeley High School (BHS). Boesing, the genius that she is, said, “The most important part of theater is the words and relationships, and you have to come back to that.”
Tanaka Ngwara, a junior at BHS, who directed The Colored Museum this fall at BHS, said that YMTC “combines the best parts of straight theater with the best parts of musical theater.” She said that one of the main criticisms of musical theater is that it is “too campy or it’s not realistic and that straight theater is a lot more able to embody and portray real life and be dramatic and deal with harder issues. But this show does all of that and in many ways feels like a straight play, but it still uses music to create the magic that you can only get in musical theater.”
The songs in the play express the characters in a way dialogue cannot; it’s acceptable to immerse oneself in musical soliloquies at any given place. “Music is more elevated than speech,” Marx-Kahn said. “The music is used at parts of the story when you need something that’s more elevated. It’s super purposeful,” he continue.
Alfie Byrne, played by Marx-Kahn, is an older man living in Dublin, Ireland, where Catholicism is largely the context of the community. Every day, throughout working as the ticket collector on a bus, he reads his passengers poems and phrases from the Bible. Meanwhile, Alfie is living with his sister, trying to direct Salome, a play his ensemble would call a “semi-professional” production. Within this situation, Alfie embarks on an exploration of love. “It’s funny because it’s an older man,” said Boesing. “But it’s kind of a coming of age story.” A driving part of his self realization is his sexuality, which he is only now understanding.
Alfie has always lived in self-denial, but wholeheartedly gives love and acceptance to anyone in his community. To Ms. Rice, the lead female in Salome, played by Ngwara, he promises, “there’s no fault in loving. No call for shame.” Ms. Rice has just told him that she is pregnant by a man she is not married to. Alfie is not as kind to himself. When he said, “there’s no one but me to blame,” it’s an internalization of homophobia within his community and religion. It is hard for him to stomach what he believes at this point: that he does not get to experience love because of his sexuality.
As Dawn Nakashima, the prop and set designer, said, “[homosexuality] is not accepted, it’s almost criminal. [Alfie] hasn’t done anything or even acted on his impulses, but he’s kind of a prisoner in his own mind, because of society.”
YMTC consistently puts on thoughtful, relevant productions, and this show is no exception. Catch A Man Of No Importance before it closes on March 17 and see some of the East Bay’s most talented teenage actors, including six BHS students.