Rap Unzel, the new children’s play running at Austin Scottish Rite Theater this month, was born out of a brainstorming session last summer, during which writer Jeremy Rashad Brown and members of the theater discussed ideas for this year’s Black History Month.
“We were sitting there and [co-director] Megan [Ortiz] had this very nifty idea,” Brown says, quoting Ortiz. “’I had a thought on the way over here about this little Black boy whose name is Unzel, to play off of Rapunzel.’ And when she said that, it was just like firecrackers… happened in my brain and I just saw this different world.”
Brown quickly envisioned a protagonist named Reginald “Rap” Unzel III, and a story about “how he personifies Black boy joy in the world, because he’s full of optimism and joy,” Brown says. “And his mother wants to protect that joy, so she tucks him away in his room so the world can’t corrupt that joy.”
For Brown, it’s a personal story – Rap is based on his younger self. “I’ve always been this little Black boy that’s been full of joy,” Brown says. “Elementary school all the way up until now. And that wasn’t deemed normal. Especially as a little Black boy growing up in a country town – Waxahachie, Texas is where I’m originally from – and so people didn’t really see me as quote-unquote “Black,” or… this type of masculine little boy that would grow up into a man. It was weird to them. And so when I wrote Rap, he is me.”
Musician SaulPaul was brought in to supply songs for the musical, and he too made a personal connection with the main character. “Once I read the script… it just spoke,” he says, “I wouldn’t even say I relate to Rap – I feel like I am Rap. ‘Cause he has this perpetual optimism and this joy, and that’s really what I’m all about.” SaulPaul's music aligned with the themes of Rap Unzel so closely that a couple of tracks from his recent kids' album All Star Anthems were added, unchanged, to the musical.
SaulPaul credits Scottish Rite artistic director with putting all the right people together to create Rap Unzel (he likens her to a puppet master, though she says she prefers to think of herself as a cheerleader).
“It’s been so exciting,” she says of the production. “We have a couple of directors, both people that Jeremy and I have worked wih a lot, Delanté Keys and Megan Ortiz… they are co-directing this show with a fantastic cast, and it’s just magical to watch it all come together.”
Brown says Rap Unzel is exactly the type of show that he wishes he’d been able to see when he was a kid. “I really, really, really wish that I had this show – and other shows like it – that I was able to see as representation of myself and people that were around me that looked like me. Growing up and seeing this, it might’ve turned out a little differently for a lot of us growing up. But it’s good that we have it now… so the kids that are growing up now have that, so that can help them as they maneuver through the world in the skin that they’re in.”