UNC student, Jose David Reynoza, discusses how Operation: Cheesecake can continue to be a platform for social change through entertainment.
I think our current director for the program , she speaks about the fact that, that we're all, as both students and the faculty finding ways to support the student, the student work because there's, there's so much of it being, wanting to be produced and being produced and stuff. And the studio season was one of the methods and ways. And so we got to apply Operation: Cheesecake for one of them. And we submitted the play called , by and it is based on a book by Helen Thorpe, which is John Hickenlooper's wife. And when Helen Thorpe wrote this it was completely based on a true story for young women to all of Mexican descent. Two of them were undocumented Mexican girls. One of them was a resident with a green card and the other was a citizen that was born. They were best friends in high school and the plays about them going from high school to college and their journey that this was pre DACA too, like, so their story was like early 2000's at the University of Denver actually, and how they got their experience went there and how they started a sorority themselves. So that in itself sparked some of the interests from multicultural Greek life. We had a few members of multicultural Greek life in the show which helped like bring a couple of people in and stuff. And we raised in combination with a stage reading that we did in the fall and the performance that we did of it in the spring, we raised about $1,500 for the DREAMer scholarship.
And so from that it was conversation of like, ‘what should we do next? Like what, what can we do?’ Cause we have the support now. And Tobias Guzman and the Office of equity and inclusion decided to have a conversation with us and we, I pitched a different show because being my senior year I was like, okay, I would love to direct and choreograph this. Hanna Golan was a director of the last one. And so I was like, I would love to direct a show coming in and I am so passionate about a show 'In the heights.' So I pitched that show to Tobias and when I pitched it to Tobias, I I told them what it was about. It's about a it's a show written by Liminal Miranda who is the same writer of Hamilton. And I told them it's about a Latinx community in Washington Heights. A lot of them are representing cultures that aren't just Mexican. All of the leads actually are Caribbean with Dominican Republic and Cuban and Puerto Rican in regards to the way that some of their identities would hold. And I told them, and I honestly, I want to tackle and cast a couple of students who identify as African American or black to be able to be some of these Latinx characters because I think with the conversation I wanna tackle now and with social change and with Operation: Cheesecake this year was colorism and talk about the fact that even as Latinx students, sometimes we forget that not just any of us who might pass as white passing are Latinx. Like we have, yeah, we have African American students who count themselves and they are black, but they're Latinx and they don't, they see less of themselves represented. I'm just like, sometimes even Asian culture, like there's cultures basically that we're fighting for representation diversity, but there's cultures out there that have even less.
So I was like, if I can use this to talk about some of the complexities of representation, then I would love to direct this musical and choreograph it. And I started talking budget stuff and I started talking to some of what this, and I used my math class. So in my math class, our last project was a budget budgeting project. And I decided, you know, what my project will be, how do I finance in the heights? How much money do I need and where would I could I get it from? And I showed that and talk to that to Tobias and the office and also the Cesar Chavez Cultural Center.
And in brief conversation with residential and housing education just made it so that we were going to have the money. And so that's our next full production. But it's a variation of all of these different projects from panels, conversations and hopefully maybe one day a podcast was stuff about what this means to just audience members. What it means to people watching diversity in your presentation, to the act itself of putting on any of these cultural events and all of these things is the fact that we focus on trying to give opportunities to students of color and women. And so because the front of the stage will only look as diverse as you keep making the back and the table, the people behind the table. So one of the main reasons we lack diversity is because a lot of our leaders in the industry, both film and musicals and theater are men white identifying, usually older who have been doing this for years, and they know good theater in general, but in their forefront is not this conversation as much.
It's a bit too new.
Yeah, and so if you can focus on maybe even cultivating and like pushing forth people who are diverse to say, hey, you can be on this side of things too. You could perform and do all these other things, but you could also maybe see how your voice matters behind because it does, then we do that with our projects and then with our full productions, then we're also telling audiences that stories like this are just as important. And so much so that like it just after our conversation with Tobias yesterday, our goal with these projects, that bi-annually we get a pretty big project like we're doing with this year and the team that we have.
So you have the green light for this?
Yeah. We're like one signature away from, cause we got the rights granted already from the company. And so they already told us how much money it would be. We have the budget approved of what we're trying to spend with stuff. We have everything set. We have the cast. We were able to cast a very diverse group of people. We're lucky to have a lot of support from friends who also identify as a lot of these cultures that are being represented in the show and they're helping me be able to talk to some of the cast members and just focusing on the educational aspect of things as well. And then obviously going forward then we have all those annual things too that it would be every year.
We have a Day of the dead. Every year we have our lunar new year to do. The one big event last year actually that I forgot to mention that we did as well was a performance for our Martin Luther King March that we're going to get to do again. What we're looking at doing something for take back the night too. So it's a, it's a little bit of the fact that it's like, I think we're all realizing how much entertainment and theater can impact and can help whether it is heal, whether it is, even if it is something fun or distract and stuff, how much it's part of the student climate. And so to be able to have these ties and connections now with like the school allows for a student group to be able to just keep doing stuff and hopefully be that connection to other student groups that are performance-based and stuff to, to encourage all of them to also be entrepreneurial this way and go and talk and meet these people because the school wants to do stuff. They know that it helps. And so the social change could happen that way.
Our best thing to make sure that we do is knowing that, and I say this even cause I'm currently a tour guide on campus. And the main thing that whenever I talk about the cultural centers, I say, ‘please note that everyone is welcomed and invited to every single one of these cultural centers.’ Even if like they do have resources specific to different populations of campus. The purpose of all of these is to find that unity and that common knowledge. And so with this particular show going forward, I'm excited to be able to talk about it because even in the opening curtain speech, which is crazy to even think about having an opening curtain speech with, with that as the director. But, it's the fact that you'll see the importance of the fact that these are all Latinx people, but the actual theme of the show and the losses and the heartache, cause there's a character in the show that's a student who had to drop out of school cause they didn’t have enough money.
And that's not just a person of color subject and conversation. All of the people are business owners. The leads in regards to the show, there's a bodega owner, there's a taxi company owner and there and there's a salon owner. And it's about gentrification. And although, as people of color, we do see that this is the direct conversation to a lot of us. There's so many people who are white, who this is what they're going through as well.
And I think that's, that's what our goal is this year, as well as, as to make sure that as we see this representation, the reason of the importance of that representation is because all of these stories are our belonging to all of us. And if we are able to see that and you see people who are different ethnicities and other diversity dealing with something that actually affects your heart even if it's kind of just subconsciously, you are realizing that we're dealing with the same stuff and you'll find a connection to these shows that you didn't think you would find a connection to.
So, so hopefully that's the goal that we'd get to accomplish that this year. And we get to invite more people in. And even in our producer panel and our producer board for Operation: Cheesecake, we try to make sure that we have students who identify as white as well. We need everything including majors represented. If we can have non-majors there that aren't performance majors, that's great.
We have Hannah Gollen who I said was a vice president, she is a Theater Ed. Major. We have several acting majors with regards to the board, and then we have a theater studies major. And we're looking for technical directors and stuff like that, which was stuff that I could bring that. And to ethnicity, the only way that it plays it's part and in regards to identities is the fact that we just have to consciously make sure that we are keeping it diverse and that we have a lot of people group presented.
And this is your last year?
A senior then?
Where do you see Operation: Cheesecake once you're gone?
Well I think that's why it's been a little bit harder for a lot of us as we are barely building a lot of these connections and doing all these things is cause it's been hard with the fact that even though it's our first time doing this stuff, we have to think of it in the respect of how is it going to happen again. And so we have open conversations with the cultural centers and letting them know that we want this to happen again. We want this to happen next year. We're learning from this, and we're trying to make sure that we leave a type of like how-to forums as we keep going and stuff. The main thing as well, which is I'm also excited a lot of the students who are in the, 'In The Heights,' this next production that we're doing our sophomores, which means that if everything goes as planned and we keep doing all these events and stuff a lot of these actors will see the passion of what we had and hopefully their senior year would be the time to do the next production.
They'll carry the torch.
So hopefully by that time they do that. And in the meantime, then the basic essence of Operation: Cheesecake is just to be a platform for these type of projects. The remaining producers and stuff, we just hope, and I mean we, there's a reason why we came together is that we know that there's going to be people who are going to want to create something that's along those lines, along the social change lines of things. And so, and that social change, like right now, it's a lot of this conversation in regards to diverse representation with people of color. But it also, we're talking about sexual identity as well. Getting people who identify in the LGBTQA+ family to play characters who identify as that as well, so that it's not always just a straight actor playing that role as well.
And also in regards to a couple other producers started a big connection with the Center for women in Gender Equity in regards to how do we get getting more women the table and getting women to be seen more in regards to their stories being told differently. So that's actually the next panel that we have thrown out in conversation to have is just a panel of female students and finding female-identifying students and talking about their experience individually. And then talk about the intersectionality’s as women of color. So hopefully that happens next spring, but that's still in the works right now. The main thing is In the Heights that we have on our plate and obviously all of our events coming up with the cultural centers, but yeah.
Would you be offended if anyone ever changed the name of Operation: Cheesecake or do you want that to hold strong?
No. Well, and that's kind of the battle that I'm having as I'm graduating this because now that I'm graduating and I see this as something that I will always want to be able to have a conversation with people about. It has been such a driving force to realize and have conversations with people about how to make an impact in the world. What does success have meant to them? Like all of these different things about like people making a change and seeing these social changes happen and whatnot, that, I've talked to people that I could potentially see myself taking the podcast to wherever I go. And then, I mean if I was really being like a dreamer and idealistically and talking about this, I would love it and I'll put it out in the universe, I would love it if other universities actually got other operation: Cheesecakes...
That'd be cool.
...For There for a lot of their theater programs because this is in talking about diversity representation, it's not just a conversation to be had at UNC. It's a conversation that can at every university. And so I hope that it gathers traction to be able to give students a platform and power.
In The Heights. This is being shown here?
Yeah, we're actually using a connection, Christy O'Connell-Black. She is one of our dance instructors here. She also works at Greeley Central and her communication as well with another student who student taught there with a teacher named Brian. They got us a place at Greeley Central. So it's going to be at Greeley Central just so that we could have, it's a full space. It's going to have access to it the full week to do rehearsals and stuff. It was, and it's in the community. It's just like three minute drive from the university center in general. And so we're doing that. It's December 6th and 7th, the Friday and Saturday, right before finals. There's two night performances and the Saturday there's a two show day.
Hopefully we get multicultural Greek life. The plan is that we're actually going to provide a bunch stuff. We are going to be selling a lot of snacks and stuff. Traditionally Latinx snacks and like little Carritos and stuff like to have outside and all the proceeds will be going to good cause. So we're looking at a percentage of it to a large, the larger percentage of I go into the dreamer scholarship. We're looking at the impact that we could have as well with sending it in because the writer, Lin Manuel Miranda's from Puerto Rico, and with everything that's been going on with Puerto Rico and has happened in the years, we'll want to see, we can impact Puerto Rico as well with certain proceeds there as well.
So all for good causes. It's free for students. So all students are going to be able to go, we just have a suggested donation of $10. Is what we're going to have. The thing with suggested donations is that people that can give more, give more, and that kind of covers a little bit and stuff, but a suggested donation of $10 per seat. We did a suggested donation for Just Like Us when we did the play and were able to raise that amount of money. So I think a suggested donation for a full length musical as well. I think in this community we'll see it a little bit different too.
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