Three teen sisters seek ancestral power in dynamic ‘Beastgirl’ at KenCen

In this world-premiere musical for young people, based on poems by bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo, they discover love, joy, and possibility.

Beastgirl at the Kennedy Center’s fabulous REACH shows the power of rituals to empower a fresh new generation. Just when you thought youngsters are hopelessly stuck in their digital this and screen that, a dynamic new script has a trio of sisters with roots in the Dominican Republic, or “DR in NYC,” bust a move and rock the house, calling up ancestors without a digital device in sight — just a journal filled with actual handwritten pages of thoughts and remembrances. This world premiere for young adults with book by C. Quintana is adapted from the chapbook Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths by bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo. The premise “considers what it means to walk the world as ‘beastly’ beings and how the myths that make us can be both blessing and birthright.”

Gathered on a rooftop in a New York barrio, the sisters emotionally evolve right before our eyes as they share their take on life. The actors portray playful young teens seeking the presence, comfort, and wisdom of their mom with total commitment and just the right amount of verve.

Jenni Gil (Cami), Edima Essien(Èji), and Mikaela Secada (Heketi) in ‘Beastgirl.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

The fun-filled choreography by Tiffany Quinn unites them into a solid threesome: Jenni Gil plays Cami, who seems to be the older one, keeper of the treasured journal and guiding with gentle nudges. Mikaela Secada’s Heketi is a whirling wonder with energy galore and luscious charisma, and she can get so excited, she’ll stand precipitously on the ledge and even tip-toe across when her big sis isn’t looking. Èji played by Edima Essien is a quiet storm, sure-footed, reliable, and ready to pounce to protect as needed. The simple melodies have an appealing improvised style as if they’re made up on the spot, adding to the playful wonder of being in the moment.

The sisters are convinced that with the right combination of belief and incense, incantation, and even a bit of salt sprinkled around for good luck, they can call up ancestors to join them. The music pops the beat and the terrific dance moves could conjure up the most resistant ancestors. The thing about conjuring up spirits is you might need to be prepared for when they show up. That’s what happens under the watchful eye of director Rebecca Aparicio, who builds the suspense with just enough tension; then before you know it, bam, you’re in a brand new reality. Exquisite lighting by Alberto Segarra shows the spirit woman backlit periodically silhouetted, hinting that she is near, and even jamming to funk-filled Latin beats thanks to the smoking-hot sound design by Delaney Bray. When the spirit guide ancestor Egun played winsomely by Brittani McNeill shows up, her powerhouse voice thrills and chills to the core. Beautifully attired in shimmering silver-gold and sparkling crown, terrific costumes by Kenann Quander, she exudes wonderment as she offers tips for the girls to stay on the path of integrity, care, and loving-kindness.

The sisters love each other dearly while squabbling and fussing like sisters do. They also take up periodic breathing exercises to help diffuse the tension and bring the audience into the communal experience.

Brittani McNeill (Egun) in ‘Beastgirl.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Along the way to channeling their loved ones for solace and comfort, they realize that the strength they craved came as much from their own united efforts as from an otherworldly specific entity. The show has them discovering and appreciating aspects of themselves, claiming their inner strengths, and each identifying her specific attribute and calling out names for themselves — “Brave,” “Ready,” and “Unstoppable.” Words matter! In their songs and movement routines, they exude the traits that they extol — love, joy, and possibility.

Judging from the exuberant standing O the night I attended, Beastgirl is a crowd pleaser and a reminder that there is nothing like in-person theater to share and lift the spirits —together. I left the show calmed from cleansing breaths and convinced that the performing arts are coming back in full swing. I’m thinking no matter the age or gender, we can all be honorary Beastgirls!

Jenni Gil (Cami), Mikaela Secada (Heketi), and Edima Essien(Èji) in ‘Beastgirl.’ Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

If you haven’t been out much, now is a perfect time to get back into the theater scene to enjoy a terrific show at the REACH, an incredible addition to the Kennedy Center, and a timely way to appreciate the Center’s 50th anniversary.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Beastgirl plays through April 27, 2022, in Studio K of the REACH at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($20), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.

The Beastgirl program is online here.

Most enjoyed by ages 12+.

COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 is required to attend all indoor performances and events at the Kennedy Center. All patrons over the age of 2 must wear a mask during the performance. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.

Book by C. Quintana
Adapted from the Chapbook by Elizabeth Acevedo
Directed by Rebecca Aparicio
Music by Janelle Lawrence
Featuring: Jenni Gil, Edima Essien, Brittani McNeill, Mikaela Secada
Music Director: Amy Bormet
Choreographer: Tiffany Quinn
Costume Design: Kenann Quander
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Sound Designer: Delaney Bray
Scenic Design: Misha Kachman
Stage Manager: Leah V. Pye


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