ARTS • BY ROB KOENIG
He was born in a French-speaking town in West Africa and barely spoke English when he arrived as a refugee in Silver Spring in 2009. But, without voice or acting lessons, he landed a role in the first Montgomery Blair High School musical he tried out for.
And this week, Audrey L. Yatdon Tchoukoua, will play the lead role, Jean Valjean, in the Blair Players’ production of the acclaimed musical, “Les Miserables.” More than 100 students are involved in the production, either on stage, in the orchestra, or in the stage crew.
“I love the role and the music,” said Tchoukoua, age 18. “And thank goodness for Blair for helping me adapt to a new school, a new language and a new culture. It is a very diverse school.”
Blair’s diversity reflects the international flair of Silver Spring, and that diversity strengthens the school players’ production of “Les Miserables,” a Tony-award winning musical, based on the 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo, that culminates in the Paris Uprising of 1832 – that has set performance records in London and New York.
Among the actors with international backgrounds in “Les Miserables” are Natnaree Phosrinak, an exchange student from Thailand, and Eunice Muchemi from Kenya, both of whom sing in the ensemble. And Tchoukoua’s brother, Fridien Nana Tchoukoua, 17, plays a student revolutionary and is an understudy for role of the Bishop.
“It’s great to bring together the diversity and talents of our school through theater,” said the musical’s director, Kelly Newman O’Connor, who heads the school’s drama program. “The Blair stage reflects the rich diversity of our community.”
Tchoukoua came to Blair by way of Cameroon. His mother had fled that West African nation as a political refugee in 2007, and she brought her two sons to Silver Spring two years later, after she had been granted residency.
While he had taken some English classes in grade school in Douala, Tchoukoua says he hardly spoke the language when he first arrived at Blair three years ago. But he got roles in the musicals “The Mikado” and “Guys and Dolls,” as well as in Macbeth.
“He has a surprisingly mature voice and incredible instincts as an actor,” said O’Connor.
Tchoukoua was delighted to land the role of Jean Valjean in this spring’s production. “I only knew ‘Les Miserables’ through the song, ‘I Dreamed a Dream,” sung by Susan Boyle and others,” he said. “But when I read it and listened to all the music, I was excited to be in this production.”
It has been an exciting spring for Tchoukoua, who recently won a scholarship to attend Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. He plans to continue singing and theater, but may major in another subject. “I think singing and acting is a gift from God,” he said. “I want to also learn things on my own.”
The Montgomery Blair Players’ presentation of Les Miserables will be staged at 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 21, 27, and 28 and at 2 p.m. on April 22 in the auditorium of Montgomery Blair High School, 51 University Blvd. East, in Silver Spring.
Tickets, costing $10 for adults and $7 for seniors and students, are available for purchase at the School Office and at www.brownpapertickets.com.
Featured photo by Tolu Omokehinde.