“We were going to do a workshop production live-theater style, in a black box and everything,” writer/producer Christin Hoang says of her original 2020 plans for the musical Romeo & Katrina. “But then the pandemic hit [and] we had to pivot really quick.”
Hoang has created stage shows before with her Color Arc production company, but this is her first full-scale musical; it’s a work of fiction, but inspired by elements of her own younger life in New Orleans. Set a few years after Hurricane Katrina, it’s a love story centered on two young people: a working-class Vietnamese-American man and an upper-class Black woman. In addition to writing and producing, Hoang also appears in Romeo & Katrina in a role based on her own mother. “Yeah, I play my own mom, sort of,” she says with a laugh. “But all don't artists... try to resolve issues from our parents?”
On October 10, Hoang and crew will perform a virtual workshop production of the musical; they’ll present just the first scene and also host a talkback with the cast and crew. To create this virtual production, Hoang enlisted director Ya’Ke Smith, who she can’t rave enough about. “He’s artist through and through, in his day job and his night job, on his weekend job, in his sleep,” she says.
Though he was involved in live theater as a kid, Smith primarily works in film. “You know, I’m a film director,” he says. “And so moving into the sort of stage play side of this was a new challenge for me, but an interesting challenge.” The way this iteration of Romeo & Katrina is being presented, though, allows him to experiment a bit with both worlds. “Because we’re doing it via zoom, it allows for more sort of creative ways of putting it together in the visual sense,” Smith says. “It’s not just people on a stage – I can actually do interesting things in moving squares around and bringing people in and out and fading things in and out and adding additional footage and music.”
Since this is her first musical, Hoang needed some help with the music side of thingsm, and she partnered with composer Tyler Mabry. “What’s awesome about working with Christine and working on this project… is that she writes such amazing characters,” Mabry says. “And the concept of this show was so vivid… that I think it just translated really naturally to music.”
Mabry says that workshopping a musical during a pandemic comes with some challenges. “One of the challenges… in terms of workshopping a musical in this context is that you can’t hear people together,” he says. “You just can’t work that quickly, I don’t think, in this environment.”
James Cho, who plays Romeo, was cast in February, just before the pandemic lockdown went into place. Because of the timing, almost all of his experiences with Romeo & Katrina since that audition have been virtual. “As a matter of fact, there are several people [in the cast and crew] that I’ve never met face to face,” he says. Rehearsing via zoom has its limitations, he says, but has also bonded the team in an unusual way. “I think that everybody just really was great about rolling with the punches,” Cho says. “It sort of took a form that is different than we anticipated but that also, I think, provided a sense of camaraderie. It’s its own thing.”
Hoang sees the positive in presenting the workshop online rather than onstage. “You need three things for theater,” she says. “You need performers, you need an audience, and you need a space. Before Covid, the space in our minds has always been a traditional theater. And now we’ve had to challenge ourselves about what space means for art, and right now it’s a shared space under one common sky. And I think that’s how we’re all trying to survive and get along and connect, is that we’re still connecting and we still share something in common. It might not be in a space where we can touch each other physically, but maybe we can touch each other through our hearts. And that’s [what] artists try to do. We just try to connect with people.”