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Jesus is portrayed as a Black woman in Company Carolina's modern 'Godspell'

Liz Howard plays Jesus in Company Carolina's production of Godspell which opens on Nov. 1, 2018.

Riddled with anxiety, Liz Howard left the theater. Though she felt like her audition went well, people in high school had told her time and time again that musical theater was not her niche.

At some point, she began to believe it.

Then, the email hit Howard’s inbox. She was shocked – as a first year, she had booked the lead role of Velma Kelly in Pauper Players’ production of “Chicago.”

That audition was the first time Company Carolina producer Bryant Chappell watched Howard perform.

“I was blown away by her singing voice,” Chappell said. “Then she performed Rose’s monologue from ‘Fences.’ I was shook. I distinctly remember writing in my notes, ‘Viola Davis would be proud.’”

That production was one year ago. Now a sophomore, Howard has scored yet another lead role – and she said it is the most challenging part she has ever tackled.

When she steps onstage as Jesus in Company Carolina’s production of “Godspell” this November, Howard said she is ready to challenge audiences.

“I think it’s going to catch people’s attention – it’s going to catch them off guard,” she said. “Playing Jesus isn’t so much about being historically accurate. It’s more about being Christ-like and doing things that Jesus would have done.”

Howard said this role is the perfect launching pad for a message of inclusivity.

‘I just have a man’s voice.’

This is not the first time the role of Jesus has been cast as a Black woman.

Stephen Schwartz, the Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist of “Godspell,” responded to the question of a Black woman in the role in an online forum in 2010.

“I, for one, have no problem with it,” he said in the forum. “I don’t think I would have made this choice for the first production of the show, but here and now, why not?”

Liz Howard rehearses for the Company Carolina's production of Godpsell. Howard plays Jesus in the play, which opens on Nov. 1, 2018.

Howard definitely has the vocal ability for the role. She said when she went in for her initial audition, director Philip Riddick was surprised at her range.

“We started doing scales and stuff, and Phil wanted to see how low I can go, because Jesus is a tenor part,” Howard said. “So we were going down the scale, and he was like, ‘Are you sick or something? Because this is pretty low.’ And I was like, ‘No, actually. I just have a man’s voice.’”

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When callbacks came, Howard was called back for Jesus and one other role in the show. She said the second audition was even more nerve-wracking than the first.

“Callbacks is like a different ball game,” she said. “Everybody is nervous around you. It is ridiculous; you can’t beat it. It’s not like you’re ever the best in the room in callbacks because there is serious competition.”

So when she got the cast list that night, she said she could not believe she got yet another lead role.

“It was a little bit a shock,” she said. “I had a sense of relief, because I was like, ‘OK, so I’m doing a show this semester. Thank God.’ It was a blessing, really.”

Liz Howard rehearses for Company Carolina's production of Godpsell. Howard plays the lead, Jesus, in the play, which opens on Nov. 1, 2018.

Building a beautiful city

In rehearsals, Howard said she found that her strong Christian faith is a crucial ingredient in her portrayal of Jesus.

“I think there’s room for everybody in Heaven,” she said. “We have people of color, we have queer people onstage. We have women and men, and people of all types of different backgrounds. I feel like it’s very important to be open and accepting of everyone.”

Jackson Campbell, an executive board member with Pauper Players, said “Godspell” is the perfect show to represent a diverse cast and challenge audiences.

“Colorblind and genderblind casting can force us to check our own biases,” Campbell said. “If our first reaction is, ‘Well Jesus can’t be a woman of color because that isn’t who he really was,’ we are forced to also ask ourselves why we are OK with him being portrayed as a white man.”

Phillip Riddick runs rehearsal for the cast of Godspell. Riddick is directing the upcoming Company Carolina production which opens on Nov. 1, 2018.

The cast has been focused on spreading a message of inclusivity in rehearsals, Howard said. She said they ran through Act 1 and Act 2 this week, and they are in good shape for their Nov. 1 opening at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.

Ultimately, Howard said she wants the audience to walk away from the show with a new perspective.

“We are all putting so much time into this,” she said. “I really want everybody to feel good. I want to be the best I can, and I want to leave an impact on people. If I do that, then I feel like I did a successful job as an actor.”

Chappell said with Howard steering the ship, the cast of “Godspell” is in good hands.

“She’s one of the few people I know who genuinely cares about others and their well-being,” he said. “I hope that the audience sees Liz’s kindness in her performance.”