Photos by Hunter Canning
We spoke to the director and cast of "Good Girl Gone Bad," an unauthorized play about Rihanna's life that tells her life story through a mix of her songs and interview quotes.
The audience members walking into the small black box theater at Soho's HERE Arts Center were all handed shots as hip-hop music played and Jay Z yelled into a microphone on stage, saying the things that hype-men say. The stage was backlit with colored lights, and a fog machine rolled smoke through the room. We were there to see a Rihanna concert, waiting patiently for HOV to bring her on. Jay Z, however, wasn't really Jay Z, and Rihanna wasn't anywhere near the building.
Some of the singer's biggest fans had just gotten together to produce and perform a musical about her life, Good Girl Gone Bad, which aims to tell the pop star's story through a staging of her hits, from Music of the Sun to Anti. It's actually more like a concert with dialogue; the show's writer and director, Alex Tobey, calls it a "bioconcert."
"I am a Rihanna superfan, first and foremost. I love Rihanna; I have always loved RIhanna," Tobey gushed when I talked to him during one of the show's rehearsals a few days before opening night. "What I love about Rihanna, too, is that she's been around forever. She's under 30 and she's already had a ten-plus year career. Just thinking about all the changes—she switches so seamlessly from one style to the next, from one album to the next. She's covered so much ground. She's such a diverse artist, and she's constantly reinventing herself."
It's true, and when I first heard that this was all happening I was amused: It does seem right to honor Rihanna with a musical. She deserves to be honored in every way possible, honestly. The star is at once a fashion muse, a skilled singer who inspires more think pieces than the usual, an important millennial, a prolific weed smoker, and dater of men. Everyone wants to find out what's going on in her life—there are always new things going on!—but no one has really done that successfully. A recent profile of the bad gal in Vogue spends an inane amount of time talking about how she gets in shape, probably because they couldn't uncover anything else. Similarly, Miranda July's profile of Rihanna in the New York Times is mostly about Miranda July and a cab driver.
But Tobey's vision of Rihanna's narrative is premised on the fact that we have been given all of the details already. The bioconcert goes through a selection of her songs chronologically and inserts bits of dialogue from interviews that Rihanna has done. At certain points, I wished there was more of an outside perspective—my favorite pop culture obsessives always have theories that they're eager to unload. Unfortunately, Drake conspiracies or fanfic don't really feature, though I appreciate Tobey's decision as a white man not to impose an outside narrative onto a black woman's story.
The 45-minute show starts off with Jay Z (played by an actor named Roger Casey) introducing Rihanna (Nicolette Stephanie Templier), a fresh face straight from Barbados. She sings "Pon de Replay" hesitantly in a cropped hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans. (There are 20 costume changes that also tell the story of RiRi's evolution.) Then Jay Z interrogates her: Who is Rihanna? he asks, the line lifted from her infamous interview with Oprah. It's about 2006, and Rihanna doesn't quite know. Thus the rest of the production is concerned with Rihanna arriving at an answer to that question as the events of her life play out. It's 2007, 2008. She becomes more confident and in control: She cuts her hair short and dyes it black for the musical's titular album. She wears leather. She sings "Umbrella" while Jay Z raps alongside her. They launch into "Disturbia," but then Jay Z is not quite Jay Z; he is someone else. Rihanna tries to sing the number's solo, but the man grabs the microphone from her. She tries to run away.
This is the point in the show where Jay Z turns into more of an amalgam, which Tobey thinks of as generally "the male gaze." It gets a little confusing: Throughout, Casey plays a mix of Jay, Chris Brown, Eminem, Kanye West, and Drake. (His Eminem impression is best.) He's Brown, now, and he pushes Rihanna to the ground. The show turns dark progressively, which mirrors the events of her life. One day Rihanna was simply a pop star from the Islands—then she became someone who very publicly endured domestic violence as well as everyone's reaction to the abuse. In Good Girl Gone Bad, this is the climax of the story.
It's not hard to imagine all the ways in which this could have gone horribly left. The success of the production is due largely in part to Templier, who is a very good singer and fake Rihanna. When I asked her how she attempted to get inside the singer's head, she told me it wasn't hard; she is also a survivor of domestic abuse. To embody Rihanna, she said, was therapeutic.
"I went through a really destructive, young love relationship that really took me over the edge. I had to get out of it to survive. Right now I'm in the recovery phase, and [Rihanna] is on the other side of it," she explained. "As a woman—and as a young woman who has tried to be this 'picture perfect image' that you don't really want to be, who is just trying to find her voice in this sea of other voices telling you what you should be—I found it very relatable."
Nicolette Stephanie Templier in rehearsal. Photo by Leah James
That we can project ourselves on to pop stars and try to insert ourselves into the narrative of their life is probably their main appeal. But Templier's own history turned a spectacle in which high camp is expected into a show of genuine emotion and humanity, which is to say it's a pretty damn good interpretation of the life and times of Robin Fenty.
"I had to dig deep and find the strength that she might have been able to find," she said of portraying the singer. "I know it's really hard to go on about your life and act like nothing happened and not be a changed woman. I thought about when she gets up in the morning—does she tell herself that she's beautiful? Does she tell herself that she's important? Does she tell herself, You've got this in the mirror and then goes out and faces the world as people criticize her? Is that what her morning is like? What else is her morning like? How do I get up? How did I get through that? How am I able to laugh now and joke around with people now?"
I asked her how. "I'm a songwriter, so I wrote a lot of songs. I got in the studio. I cried my eyes out," she replied.
Good Girl Gone Bad implies Rihanna did the same. It explores her songs with a respect that I don't think is typically granted to the bad gal as a songwriter. "Love the Way You Lie" and "We Found Love" become both the exploration and defense for getting back together with Brown following the abuse. "American Oxygen" becomes her lament for a somewhat normal life. "Bitch Better Have My Money" becomes her anger and triumph. In between, there's a whole lot of fun numbers, including one where a beach ball gets tossed into the audience.
Toward the end of it, Casey asks again: Who is Rihanna? Presumably she knows the answer now.
When the show was over I scooted out to the bathroom like everyone else. In line, I asked a girl what she thought. "Now I want to go home and listen to Rihanna," she responded.
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