The casting decision was natural. After auditioning many teens and young adults, Director Bob Navis Jr. decided on who would play the lead roles of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton in this summer’s youth production of Side Show, opening July 19. One, Shekinah (CoCo) Smith, was African American. The other, Erin Sheplavy, was European American. This was almost a non-issue for us at Near West Theatre.
The races have been mixing on this urban crossroads of a stage for a long time. We’ve had interracial siblings, couples and families. Multiple combinations of black, white, brown and other beautiful hues of actors have played Bye Bye Birdie parents, Willy Wonka grandparents, Into the Woods spouses, Finian’s Rainbow siblings, Cratchit family members, you name it. Even in an age when mixed-race families are ever more common, heads in the audience must sometimes spin trying to figure out whose children are whose and how it’s all possible (“are they adopted?”). Until, of course, music, story and personal journey transport us to the Land of Suspended Disbelief and we all pretty much stop thinking about it.
So it was almost a non-issue. We still had to reckon with this: conjoined twins of different races aren’t known to exist in real life. But why not on stage? After all, how many times have Violet and Daisy been played by actual identical-twin actors, let alone conjoined ones? So the audience always has to suspend some disbelief. We’re just taking it to another level. And we’re not doing it to be strange or shocking. The 2010 census put Cleveland at 53.3 percent African American and 39.3 percent white (among other diverse racial groups). People from all over the city and suburbs audition here. The best matches for lead roles will simply be of different races sometimes. We think Side Show‘s story can be told compellingly and with integrity with interracial twins. We explained that to the folks at Samuel French, Inc. — the owner of Side Show, with whose permission we’re performing it — in alerting them about this nontraditional casting decision, and we’re glad to have their blessing.
We’re also glad to have a cast of 13- to 21-year-olds performing this colorful, urgent, touching and sometimes disturbing piece of musical theater. The subject of carnival freaks and how they’re presented can be unsettling. But who better than young people to wrestle with this material and the twins’ search for love? “As Violet and Daisy struggle to stop defining themselves by their physical limitations, the people around them are fascinated, fearful, compelled and distanced by their talents, their charm and their abnormality,” Bob Navis says. “Our diverse cast of teens and young adults, simply due to their ages, deal daily with this show’s themes of self -image, social acceptance and personal fulfillment. As a result, we believe this production will explode with vitality and immediacy.” Our publicity image for the show, featuring stylized profiles of CoCo and Erin, carries one of show’s song titles: “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”
Side Show runs for just eight performances on our main stage at 3606 Bridge Ave., Cleveland, July 19 through Aug. 4. Tickets and information are available at our website, or by calling 216-961-6391 weekdays between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seats are $8 for adults and $6 for children 12 and under (the show has intense scenes not appropriate for younger children). Or support Near West Theatre’s art and mission by purchasing a $20 reserved Star Seat with special benefits. — Hans Holznagel
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Henry Krieger
Vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase
Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler
Side Show is presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, INC.