Leimert Park arts center auditions princesses and frogs for South LA production

Director Brandon Rainey sat behind a piano in a practice room at the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center — a nonprofit in Leimert Park that provides free music and arts classes — and asked the 11-year-old girl standing in front of him to yell. Aiyana Lopez-Spaari responded with a shriek. Aiyana is one of many girls who are auditioning for the part of Princess Tiana in Rainey’s live-musical adaptation of the Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog.”

The idea of putting the first Disney film to have a Black princess on a stage in an area known as an enclave of Black culture in Los Angeles originated with a conversation between Rainey and Fernando Pullum, the nonprofit’s founder, late last year.

After working with high school students on productions such as “The Lion King” and “Dreamgirls,” they both wanted to work with elementary and middle-school-age children.

“We wanted to give back to the younger generation with the production,” said Rainey. “It’s a reminder to little girls across the community that they’re princesses and they can have dreams and standards too.”

See also on Intersections: Leimert Park’s World Stage fights eviction

Musical director Pooh Mayo said he believes that, compared with an animated movie, there is something more inspiring about seeing people bring a story to life in a musical.

Mayo said he loves the film because it does not simply have a princess who happens to be Black. Instead, it presents a multidimensional character representing many aspects of Black identity. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Leimert Park’s population is 79.6 percent Black. Perhaps, Mayo thought, a musical could connect people of the Leimert Park community in a unique way.

“The [type of] neighborhood we’re in is portrayed in the movie,” Mayo said, explaining the parallels between South L.A. and mid-century New Orleans, where Disney’s re-imagined take on the Grimm brothers’ “The Frog Prince” takes place. “The students see themselves in the movie. They understand gumbo, they understand family, they understand working for a white family.”

As Rainey started piecing together the production, he began sympathizing more than he had expected to with Tiana’s economic struggle of opening her own restaurant. After adapting the screenplay into a script for the stage, Rainey discovered that the Pullum Center could only give him half the money he needed to produce the show.

Aiyana takes a break at rehearsal for  "Princess and the Frog" | Kevin Tsukii

Aiyana Lopez-Spaari takes a break at rehearsal for “Princess and the Frog.” | Kevin Tsukii

He considered grants, but most required applications to be submitted two or three years before the money could be parceled out. Nevertheless, Rainey remained hopeful that the show would be able to open as planned in March, after a total of eight rehearsals.

And so, rehearsals began. On day one, the cast watched the film and began learning the lyrics and melody for the first song. Meanwhile, Rainey called aside the princess-hopefuls who wanted to play the young, teen and adult versions of Tiana.

“Don’t think about it — you’re thinking too much. You like singing, right? Well this is going to help the heck out of you,” Rainey said to Aiyana, the girl he had asked to yell. “You made it into the show – now release and feel comfortable.”

Aiyana shook her hands, loosened up her body, and tried again at singing her go-to audition song, “Feeling Good” made famous by Nina Simone.

“Birds flying high, you know how I feel / Sun in the sky you know how I feel / Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel / It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day for me…and I’m feeling good.”

Aiyana said the opportunity to play the part of the young Tiana will be a dream come true. The sixth-grader at View Park charter middle school hopes one day to become a professional singer, dancer and actor.

Twenty-three other girls auditioned for the part. And, like so many of them, Aiyana’s said her favorite Disney movie was “The Princess and the Frog.”

“I couldn’t believe they actually made a movie with a princess who was Black and a frog and they fall in love,” Aiyana said in a rush as she unwrapped the aluminum foil from her sandwich during the lunch break. “I think the message is to keep going and never give up on your dreams.”

At least Aiyana now has one dream to cross off on her list. She got the part.

Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center:


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