Telling our stories: being part of the global artistic exchange

Volume 117, No. 8September, 2017

SHARING INSIGHTS: Alvester Garnett (left) and Sita Chay addressed fellow musicians at Local 802’s annual NYMF and Broadway networking event, with César Vargas moderating.

Local 802 has been a proud partner of the New York Musical Festival for over a decade. This year, NYMF showcased culturally diverse and socially conscious musical productions, bringing people’s stories to the limelight. To celebrate this fusion of storytelling and music, Local 802 invited Broadway and NYMF musicians, special guests and our dedicated staff to a private networking event, which filled our club room. Aside from a delicious Caribbean dinner and wine, guests enjoyed extra time for networking. Artistic professionals in attendance included Mike Hodge, president of SAG-AFTRA NY; Chris Massimine, executive director of the Yiddish Theatre; and Charlie Vázquez, director of the Bronx Council of the Arts. President Tino Gagliardi delivered the welcome remarks and Liz Ulmer, managing director of the New York Musical Festival, addressed the musicians, lauding their talent and contribution to this year’s festival.

Following the festival’s diversity mission, the event featured an enlightening panel conversation, entitled: “Telling Our Stories: Being Part of the Global Artistic Exchange” with members Alvester Garnett and Sita Chay. Moderated by the first undocumented immigrant in history to be sworn in as an attorney in New York State, César Vargas, the panel explored cultural sensibilities, fresh perspectives in musical theatre, and diverse careers paths in music. More importantly, it took the industry’s pulse and reflected on our current environment as a community. The panel discussed the importance of mentorship, stylistic flexibility and cultural exchange among musicians. They reflected on the barriers that people of color face as they grow their musical careers, the division caused by the competitive nature of this industry, and the need to come together to overcome these issues.

Alvester Garnett (“After Midnight,” “Shuffle Along”), veteran jazz drummer  and one of our newest Executive Board members, eloquently dissected the cross-pollination of genres in musical theatre, including jazz. He told the audience, “We’re all connected. That’s one of the beauties of learning different styles of music. I think that’s one of the things of being a jazz musician and also playing on Broadway: it all comes together.” As an African American, he also explained the importance of connecting the story to broader audiences and communities.

Sita Chay (“Miss Saigon,” “Fiddler on the Roof”), is a Korean violinist, best known as a member of the Latin Grammy-nominated, all-female Mariachi group Flor de Toloache. She wrote the orchestrations for the musical “Love in Asia,” which tackles the taboo issue of interracial marriage in Korea and the struggles associated with it. “It’s something that people are afraid to talk about, and want to ignore,” she said. “The fact that we did it with a musical that was funny and touching with beautiful music gave a way for people to face it with little more ease. If it’s a show, nobody really is pointing a finger to a specific person but we can all think about it. We connected with a lot of audiences who experience the same things. We opened the door to speak out, connect and communicate.”

After exploring other diversity issues, César Vargas asked the panelists if they’ve ever been boxed into a special category due to their race, color or ethnicity. Sita Chay explained her situation with her own parents given that she is classically trained but now makes a living playing Mexican music. “There’s something universal inside us,” she said. “We can find something unique and universal that is beyond the look or age, or what you’re told.” Music is an open universe. She went on to explain that when she plays in her mariachi band, “Everyone is surprised. They all come to me speaking Spanish, but they’re still confused. But, because my group accepted me, just by accepting the power of the music, audiences accepted me. I can tell there are Asian girls in the audience connecting because they see me in my Mexican outfit. I love seeing their faces.”

On the subject of Broadway, Alvester Garnett shared his advice: “In regards to subbing, if you can do it, get in there. It’s hard work. Pay attention to the ones who are qualified and professional regardless of what they look like.”

The event aimed to strengthen the community by networking and by embracing diversity, not only on stage but in the orchestra pit. By sharing our stories, we’re propelled to look at the bigger picture and expand our horizons. Only then are we able to push our collective forward, with opportunities for everyone.