‘Aladdin’ leading lady doesn’t need sight to command stage
GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — When Riley Crawford was auditioning for the role of Jasmine, she’d already memorized most of her lines.
The 14-year-old leading lady, however, has never seen the script.
Riley is blind.
The Emerald High ninth-grader is part of the cast for Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.,” at Greenwood Community Theatre. The screenplay, which was written for school-aged performers, is based on the 1992 Academy Award-winning film and the 2014 hit Broadway show.
It’s a production of GCT’s Penguin Project, which allows young actors — known as artists — to explore the magic of theater, regardless of physical, intellectual or emotional disability. The project pairs these artists with volunteer buddies known as mentors, who work with them on and off stage.
Riley might have known the words, but GCT Executive Director Stephen Gilbert and others saw to it that Riley received a tactile Braille script.
“Every year with Penguin Project, some challenge will present itself to be overcome and we will make whatever accommodations we need to for this to happen,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert contacted Music Theatre International, but the New York-based theatrical licensing company did not have “Aladdin Jr.” in Braille. Then, Gilbert had an “aha moment.”
During his time as a participant in the Greenwood SC Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Greenwood class, Gilbert learned that one of the programs at Leath Correctional Institution is Braille transcription of textbooks for the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind.
Gilbert made inquiries and found out a Microsoft Word version of the script would be needed for transcription.
“MTI did not have a Word document version, but MTI reached out to Disney and Disney provided one,” Gilbert said. “Then, Leath fast-tracked this script project.”
Riley now has a Braille version of the “Alladin Jr.” script.
“This is a perfect example of the cooperation and sponsorship that Penguin Project takes,” Gilbert said.
With Riley in “Aladdin Jr.” is Reggie Roper as Jafar, the power-hungry villain in “Aladdin Jr.”
Reggie, 24, acted in GCT’s first Penguin Project production in 2017, “Annie Jr.” and he’s enjoying his evil-minded character role this go-round.
“The sneaky ways that he tries to reveal that Aladdin is not a prince are fun,” Reggie said. “I enjoy doing different parts.”
Reggie’s script is dog-eared and pages are tagged with different colors of sticky notes. His mom, Geraldine Carter, said she’s most proud that her son learned his lines and songs on his own, without her help.
Rehearsals began at the end of April.
“He was born premature and experienced developmental delays,” Carter said, noting Reggie has a rare condition known as Noonan-like syndrome. “When your child wants to do something, you find the time. It is so exciting to see him on stage, especially when he did not have help from me.”
His “Aladdin Jr.” mentor is Kinkade Garland, 14, a first-time Penguin Project mentor, who was in the Arts, Communication, Theater School magnet program at Brewer Middle School last year.
“On stage, Reggie and I have the best time,” Garland said. “It is so fun, it’s not work. I’ll help with lines and movement and making sure we are in the right place on stage.”
Reggie participates in the Burton Center for Disabilities and Special Needs day program, where he has worked for three years, helping to disassemble disposable cameras and more. Burton Center is scheduled to attend a preview performance of “Aladdin Jr.”
“I enjoy meeting new friends and communicating with others,” Roper said.
Nineteen-year-old Hanna Blackwell, who has autism, has the role of the hilarious genie. Hanna also acted in last year’s Penguin Project show.
Her mentor is Emerald High student Ella Wood.
“I love his magical entrances,” Hanna said, of her role. “I’m familiar with the movie and I’ve seen some clips from the Broadway production. The songs are the most fun.”
For Wood, one of the biggest perks of Penguin Project is building friendships.
“We definitely want to expand and grow and reach more,” said Ansley B. Keenan, GCT’s Penguin Project director and drama teacher with Brewer Middle’s ACTS program. “This year, we have close to 60 artists and mentors.”
After learning she’d been cast as Jasmine, Riley called her mentor, 13-year-old Leah Burdette, and screamed with excitement into the phone.
During the mentoring process, Leah — who is in eighth grade at Westview Middle School — has been sharing her knowledge of sign language with Riley.
“She sings all the time, but she’s never done anything like this,” said Julie Crawford, Riley’s mom.
Riley said participating in Penguin Project puts her “on a level playing field” with other youth actors.
“It’s really helped me open up,” she said. “I own it.”
When asked if she’s ever had someone say she cannot do something because she’s blind, Riley said, “All the freakin’ time.”
Her response to that point of view?
“Oh, yeah, well, let me show you.”
Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com