Queer casting brings a range of emotions for actors at Near West Theatre
A play opening Friday uses unconventional casting to tell a well-known, but unconventional, story. “The Last Five Years” explores a young couple’s relationship through song. The musical by Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown tells the man’s perspective chronologically while the woman’s story is told in reverse. The production at Cleveland’s Near West Theatre casts women in both roles.
Director Jordan Cooper pitched several ideas for the theater's black box space, and he hit upon casting queer artists as one way to take a fresh look at a modern classic.
“I literally had a rubric that was, ‘If it's this type of person playing Cathy, what would it do for Jamie's point of view?’” he said. “I spent a lot of time in prep before the audition, and I was just incredibly lucky that we had a turnout of over 70 people show up for just two roles.”
When Cooper heard Sarah Blubaugh and Kyla Burks singing together, he knew he’d found his leads. The actresses were pleasantly surprised when they got the parts.
“I think I immediately started laughing like, ‘This is, this isn't real,’” said Blubaugh, who plays Jamie.
Burks, who is Black, was similarly excited to perform as part of not just a lesbian couple but an interracial couple. In the song “Climbing Uphill,” she said it gave her a chance to infuse the role of Cathy with her own experiences from the audition process.
“Things come up where it's like, ‘Can you sound more soulful?’” she said. “Or, ‘Can you pull back the soul?’ If anything, why are we using the word ‘soul?’ It was very wonderful and freeing to have that conversation.”
Blubaugh’s character is a writer. She said performing in this production – and watching Burks’ performance – reminded her of her days at Cleveland State University and stereotypes about actors.
“Everyone I'm sure has heard the, ‘Oh, you're just really good at lying’ kind of trope,” she said. “My professor, in response to that, said what we're actually doing is cultivating our empathy.”
Cooper said he hopes the alternative casting of this production imparts a universality of the human experience.
"It's really important to see queer people through a lens that we aren't anything different when it comes to our emotions," he said. "These aren't emotions that are special because Jamie's gay. Jamie's just sad, you know? So, I'm hoping that people can come into the space, see a clear relationship and also see their own relationships... and gain more of that empathy."