Disney’s Tony Award-winning musical “Newsies,” currently featured at Arena Stage in southwest D.C., reminds us of the impact children, driven by the desire to fight for what’s right, can have on their communities, the nation and world.
And while the play’s story comes from actual events, the Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City when newsboys and newsgirls led a crusade for justice with dreams of a better life, the impact that youth can make in efforts to change society remains just as viable today, albeit more than a century later.
Director Molly Smith describes the production as a “brilliant blending of a children’s crusade and a contemporary Gold Standard musical.”
“With today’s young people fighting passionately for gun control and climate protection legislation in new children’s crusades, we clearly see resonance with today’s young people,” she said. “The plight of the newsboys and girls … is a passionate story because they stood up for themselves and fought for fairness. With music that’s hummable, wonderful acting from a top-notch cast, dynamic choreography and plenty of young people on stage, this is an ideal production to bring the whole family to the theater during the holidays.”
Ensemble member Carole Denise Jones, a musical theater graduate from James Madison University, makes her Arena Stage debut and says she’s excited about finally breaking into the D.C. theater scene.
More significantly, she celebrates joining the cast of “Newsies” as a Black actor afforded their “first experience with non-traditional casting” – something that in her own words, “fills me with glee.”
“What interested me was playing a part that wasn’t typically cast as a Black woman, not that it couldn’t be,” said Jones, a Lynchburg native who became serious about acting as a teenager after her first encounter with a live performance upon seeing “Phantom of the Opera” on a London stage.
“I used to play violin and was there with the orchestra for two weeks,” she said. “That experience caused me to put all of my focus into acting.”
Her decision, it seems, has led to fruitful outcomes and a successful career encompassing an assortment of credits including roles on stage, television and film: “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway; national tours in “Whistle Down the Wind” and “Mamma Mia;” television appearances in “The Americans” and “Dietland” and a role in the upcoming movie “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” scheduled for release in 2020.
When asked about the growing trend of directors now pushing long-held, traditional boundaries for roles, particularly within the theatrical canon, so they can be portrayed by anyone regardless of race or gender, she remarked, “it’s happening more and more these days and I’m both thankful and pray it continues and becomes the norm.”
Jones, now living in New York with her husband, a guitarist she met while on tour with “Mamma Mia” and who’s also currently on the road with “Beautiful: The Carole King Story,” believes “Newsies” bears striking similarities to today’s Black Lives Movement and the youth who stand in the trenches.
“Fighting to be seen and understood and to secure the rights one deserves serves as the foundation for ‘Newsies,'” she said. “There’s something for everyone in this show: immigrants, first-generation children, African Americans and women.”
“The greater message I want to share with youth of color, given what I’ve learned and achieved in my life, is nothing is impossible. You can do it all but only if you refuse to allow others to put you in a box. I remember coming to D.C. to the Kennedy Center on bus tours to see shows and dreaming about the roles I would play one day. I am an example of someone who kept going, kept pushing and kept seeing myself in ways that others may not have seen me – at least not then.”
“If you’re serious about acting, you must pursue your dream like you’re going after a career and not just pursuing a hobby,” she said.
The play continues at the Arena Stage through Dec. 22.