A story about young people facing hardships while attempting to create a community for a better future. That synopsis of the iconic hit musical Rent has been interpreted in a number of ways since it officially debuted in 1996. According to director Ty Defoe, the stories and themes within the musical are more applicable to our contemporary political and social climate than ever before.
Defoe, a two-spirit, indigi-queer creator, is the brilliant mind behind the performance piece Two Spirit, One Dance. His song “Come to Me Great Mystery” appeared in a collection that won the Grammy Award for Best Native American Music Album. He channels this lived experience as he collaborates closely with the TUTS creative team to bring the show’s story of struggle, love, and hope to the Hobby Center this month.
Speaking to the topical relevance of the production, Defoe explains, “This story is something that, at the time it premiered, wasn’t seen. The contemporary nature of the musical is seen in the overturning of the parts that the dominant society has shied away from talking about, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and the evolution of interpersonal connection and human existence.”
The Tony Award-winning musical tells the story of young, struggling artists living in Lower Manhattan while the AIDS epidemic rages on throughout the 1980s. Defoe, a citizen of the Oneida and Anishinaabe Nation, views that story from the perspective of a queer indigenous creator. “It’s about a group of young people who are connecting with each other at a very important time. When I think about something like Rent, I’m seeing it as a historical piece that’s still alive and very much present today. The musical blends the past, the present, and the future, just as indigenous lifeways do. It’s the past, present, and future that is still in existence against 500 years of colonialism. When I relate that to something like Rent, it’s this idea, right at its core, of young people trying to create a new Bohemia for the future.
“I like to think about these ways of seeing the world as almost like superpowers, where
I get to see into the full complexities of gender, human nature, and interpersonal relationships,” Defoe adds. “As an indigenous person, I experience these cultural ways of viewing and seeing the world that have always been present. It’s almost like pulling them down to give messages, not only on a local level, but on a state and national level, and then on a global level.”
Critics will assert that the show’s 1980s subject matter is outdated. Defoe wholeheartedly disagrees, saying, “It’s very contemporary. We just went through a pandemic together where we had to stay inside of our houses. We couldn’t leave our apartments, we couldn’t make theater, we couldn’t see each other, except people that were in our bubble. How is that any different from [the character] Mark, for example, staying in his apartment for weeks on end? Or Mark getting obsessed with making art as a means of expression, or being a person trying to relate to others? People change and evolve, and so does a show like this. [Its plotline is] built around these characters from a time when gathering together in unity was so needed. That’s the contemporary part of this piece.”
The New York City native is thrilled to be in Houston, collaborating with artists from across the country and from right here in H-Town. “What was really exciting about this opportunity to direct Rent is being in Houston. Just getting to know Texas and Texans, really thinking about the conversations that Rent can [spark among] intergenerational groups of older folks, queer and non-queer folks—[especially] with the younger generation coming up, and with people of a multiplicity of gender and racial identities and backgrounds.
“I hope folks within the city and the surrounding areas come to see the show. Because of the political tenor of what’s going on in America, I feel like it’s a necessary piece that needs to be seen and heard by all.”
Referring to the hometown talent in the production, Defoe notes that some of the actors are returning to Houston for this TUTS production. [We have] actors, singers, and designers who didn’t get a chance to [tell this story] when they left Houston to pursue their careers and dreams. So getting to be in a room full of these creative people to create joy and laughter and healing—I am, as we hear the character Maureen say, over the moon!”
Don’t miss Out@TUTS on Thursday, May 25th, where LGBTQ+ musical theatre fans can enjoy a night of live music, free bites, and drink specials hosted by Regina Thorne-DuBois.
WHAT: TUTS’ production of Rent
WHERE: The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.
WHEN: May 16–28, 2023