Full cast and production crew of “Disbelief: A Cassandra Tale” at the Laney College Theater. (Luke Wrin Piper/The Citizen)

May 11, 2022

By Justin Burrows, Staff Writer

The Laney College Theater Arts Program production of “Disbelief: A Cassandra Tale” by local playwright Garrett Jon Groenveld premiered on April 13 and had a three day run, ending on the 15th. The production, while short lived, meant a lot for the actors involved and the Theater department as a whole, as it was the first in person performance since lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Disbelief” which was produced by Theater Arts department chair Michael Torres, is the modern adaptation of ancient mythology, in which the god Apollo curses a mortal woman, Cassandra, with the ability to foresee the future after she refuses him – but no one belives her predictions.  

The Citizen published a preview of the performance, featuring Torres and his expectations for the play.  

According to Torres, the play was well received and there was a substantial number of people who showed up for the performance despite COVID-19. 

“I think our turnout was excellent, all  things considered… I think about 200 folk saw the show,” Torres said. 

The majority of the actors in the play had very little experience working in theater, especially in person. The lead actress, Abigail Arias, was born in Oakland. She moved around the Bay Area until she graduated from Los Banos high school, when she returned to Oakland. Arias decided to continue her education at Laney College because of the wide variety of classes, including art classes. 

Arias said that her inspiration for exploring theater arts classes is her artistic drive that started with her love of drawing. She enjoys creating characters and bringing them to life through her art. 

Left, Abigail Arias playing Cassandra. Right, Maria Rogers playing Voice 1. (Luke Wrin Piper/The Citizen)

“I would imagine these characters in the scenarios, and it’s a little silly, but I guess I would act out how these characters would act,” Arias said, adding that she would often model her own characters off of people in shows and movies and build their characters through media adaptations. 

As her journey into the future continues, Arias said she isn’t sure how big a part acting will play in her life, however, she is very close to receiving an associate’s degree in theater arts and a bachelors if she continues to San Francisco State University. 

Arias’s prior experience in theater was the online adaptation of Macbeth, the first ever production she participated in at Laney. She noted it was difficult to adjust to acting for the first time, especially over a screen, because you don’t get the same kind of feedback you do in person. She remembers the process behind the production and how it was different from her first online performance. 

“We were there every single day, so we didn’t get a day of rest, there was not one day, because we were the main leads in that play and had to memorize every single line of the play,” Arias said, addressing her responsibility as one of the leading roles along with co-actor CJ Young, who played Apollo. Despite the hard work and responsibility, she enjoyed the cooperation and thrived with the access to in-person resources and feedback from Torres.

Sundiata Ayinde was another of the lead actors in the production, who played Hecuba, the queen of Troy. Ayinde grew up in the Bay Area, and noted that when she graduated from Bishop O’Dowd High School, she had offers to go straight into the University of California system. 

“I was really worried about going to a UC and dedicating my time and a lot of money into something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do,” she said. Her decision was to be the first in her family to go to community college to really learn about herself and what she wanted to do.

“There’s a bunch of doors opening for me, and I wasn’t under the stress of this financial burden that I was worried about,” Ayinde said about her experience at Laney College. Ayinde stated that she did not have a lot of previous acting experience as well, in spite of doing some commercials as a child.

Abigail Arias, lead actress playing Cassandra. (Luke Wrin Piper/The Citizen)

Ayinde has been part of the Laney College theater department for about three years, and throughout her time in the department, she has participated in  multiple online performances. Even with more experience than her co-actors, Ayinde still found it somewhat stressful performing in person and in front of a live audience for the first time.  

“ … we’re all just trying to get back into it, not even just acting, rehearsing, but being around other human beings,” Ayinde explained. 

“So Disbelief Really opened me up back to the world, and reminded me why I love doing this and why I want to give back to it.” 

According to Ayinde, Zoom fatigue isn’t just in the virtual classroom. “I’m just used to seeing the numbers show up at the bottom of the Zoom call where it says participants,” Ayinde explained that she is trying to really connect with her characters in a way that forces her out of her comfort zone. 

Student actors of Laney College Theater Arts Program production of “Disbelief: A Cassandra Tale.” (Luke Wrin Piper/The Citizen)

“A lot of people would say being comfortable is a really dangerous thing. And it’s the death of creativity, creativity and growth,” Ayinde explained. 

Ayinde is interested in the future transferring to a four-year college such as Howard or UC San Diego, yet in the meantime, she plans to enjoy the rest of her time at community college as she continues to help younger actors and artists find their own paths.

As the semester comes to an end the theater department begins planning their next production, Torres mentioned not only did Garret Jon Groenveld, the playwright of “Disbelief,” offer the department an opportunity to do another one of his plays, so did a new playwright named Jeffrey Lo, who is the Bay Area director and TheatreWorks’ casting director. 

In addition, some of the production team will continue to pursue their artistic dreams. One of the actors within the theater department, Juliann Lathung, has won a two year scholarship to San Francisco State University, called the Toni K Weingarten scholarship for exceptional youth acting, and only two students per semester receive this award. 

In another feat, Torres said that some of the department’s actors and production staff have  been hired by professional production companies right in the Bay Area.