Before her career as a Puerto Rican vocalist and bandleader took off more than two decades ago, Taina Asili felt right at home on the musical theater stage. She'll return to that art form Thursday at the Schenectady Light Opera Company in downtown Schenectady when she takes on the role of Abuela Claudia in a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights."
"I haven't done any theater since my college years," said Asili, a native of Binghamton and a resident of Albany since 2007. "But the theater is really how I got into music. My father was a musician and my mother a dancer so I grew up in a real artistic family. Basically I was training in opera and musical theater from the time I was around 9 until I was 20."
More recently, she's been touring all over the country and Europe with her eight-piece band, "Asili y la Banda Rebelde" (Rebel Band), and in January of 2017 performed in front of more than 500,000 people at the Women's March on Washington. Two months later she released a video, "No Es Mi Presidente" (He's not My President), which received national acclaim and a positive review from Rolling Stone Magazine.
"I kind of left the musical theater world as my career in writing and performing progressed," said Asili, who went to SUNY-Binghamton for her undergraduate degree before getting a masters in Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College. "But I've always wanted to get back into it. I was contacted by the director of this show and my schedule happened to fall right, so I said yes."
Peter Caracappa is directing the show for SLOC, and while the auditions had gone well, he still hadn't found his Abuela Claudia.
"We had plenty of great talent show up to audition, but we didn't really have anyone we felt was appropriate to play Abuela Claudia," said Caracappa. "So, as you have to do sometimes in community theater, you have to do some networking. I asked a friend of a friend is Taina might be interested. I knew she had some roots in musical theater, and felt like she would fit into the role beautifully."
Asili's brother also felt that way.
"Even before I was contacted by the director of the show, my brother had seen advertising auditions and had suggested to me that I audition for the role," said Asili. "I told him, 'no way, I don't have the time.' I knew I couldn't find room to put this in my life. But then Peter got a hold of me and asked me, and I thought, 'this is a second sign to do this.' Then I looked at the schedule and it happen to fall perfectly between my summer tour and my fall tour."
Also a part of Asili's decision-making process was the fact that she felt extremely connected to the character.
"My grandmother was just like the character of Claudia," said Asili, whose grandmother came to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1940s. "Claudia came from Cuba, my grandmother from Puerto Rico. They were both important grandmother figures to people they weren't related to. So this role is a wonderful opportunity to play someone who speaks so deeply to my cultural background. She's dealing with some of the same things my grandmother dealt with, like discrimination, poverty and language barriers."
The kind of high-energy Afro-Latin, reggae and rock music Asili typically performs is perfect for the role of Claudia. "In the Heights" was Miranda's first musical and is set in a three-day time period in a largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. While it may be overshadowed by the blockbuster success of "Hamilton," it was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. Asili hasn't seen a stage production of the show, but she is very familiar with the music.
"I've listened to the soundtrack, and I'm having a great time working on the show with a wonderful cast of actors," said Asili. "I love traveling and performing with my small band of musicians, but to have a cast of 21 actors and connecting with them all in this wonderful work of theater is really magical."
"We are absolutely thrilled to have Taina involved in this show," said Caracappa. "She has a huge fan base all over the country, and maybe we'll get some people coming to the show who might not usually show up. She is an immense talent with a great voice, and she's very authentic to the character of Claudia."
Thursday's preview at SLOC will serve as a benefit for the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
"I very much believe in the resiliency, the strength and the power of the Puerto Rican people," said Asili, who is planning on releasing a documentary on Puerto Rico's struggle to recover later this year. "We want to bring about healing and justice. That's what's inspiring me, and doing that kind of work should be inspirational for all of us."
Asili's husband, Gaetano Vaccaro, is a member of her band and an Albany native. The couple have two children.
"I'm from upstate, I'm a parent and I wanted to raise my kids upstate, and Albany is where my husband is from," said Asili, who is co-founder of the New York State Prisoner Justice Network and a board member of Soul Fire Farm, a not-for-profit group whose mission it is to "ending racism and injustice in our food system."
Joining Asili on stage will be Jonathan Lajas as Usnavi, Carmen Lookshire as Nina and Amanda Serrano as Vanessa. Dan Galliher is the music director and Gregory Marsh is the choreographer.
'In the Heights'
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday preview is a benefit for Puerto Rico's hurricane victims; Show opens 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Sept. 30; performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $28-$22
MORE INFO: 1-877-350-7378, or visit www.sloctheater.org