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‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Star Dan’yelle Williamson on the Musical’s Relevance

May 31, 2018 by Amelia Reynolds
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Dan’yelle Williamson in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at The 5th Avenue Theatre. (Photographed by Tracy Martin)

Victor Hugo described Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as “a supernatural creature” and “a nymph.” Dan’yelle Williamson, who plays the role in 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of the musical, describes her as a “no-nonsense chick” and a “tough cookie.”

Williamson relates to the transient, free-wheeling Esmeralda, empathizing with both the liberation and the exhaustion that comes with constantly moving from place to place. As a passionate performer who’s moved up and down the East Coast a number of times for jobs, Williamson muses on the character’s personal significance, as well as what this antiquated tale signifies on a broader scale in 2018.

We caught up with Williamson to talk about this production’s inclusiveness, modern relevance, and her connection to the character she portrays.

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Could you tell me a little bit about what makes this production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” different than other productions?
I think what makes this particular production special is the fact that we have a Deaf Quasimodo. It’s been really interesting watching [Joshua Castille] work as well as trying to figure out what we need to do to make the experience inclusive for him. I’ve never worked with a Deaf actor before, so it’s really cool figuring out what we need to do in order to make the show run smoothly, and make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s been really, really cool, and an awesome way to work. I come in every day, and I learn something new.

Did you need to know any American Sign Language (ASL) going into the show?
I did not come in with any ASL knowledge. [The company] held an ASL training course for the performers. Attending that brought a lot of things to light for me. I now know how to communicate effectively with someone who is Deaf or hard of hearing.

How does the musical compare to the original Disney movie?
It does have a darker feel. There are a lot of moments that will affect you in a deep-seated way. A lot what we’re doing on stage, I’d like to think of as art imitating life. This show is very relevant to what we’re experiencing today with bias and racism. There’s a lot of unjust and ugly things happening in our world right now. I believe that this show is a reflection of those very things. How can we be better? How can we push towards more inclusion? I think it’s awesome that we have a Deaf actor because there’s also discrimination against Deaf people. And, yes, it does play dark, but I think that there are some moments that are actually really light-hearted, and fun, and will bring joy. You’re getting, like, the “real” moments, but you’re getting some moments that are tender, you’re getting some moments that are kind, so it’s not all dark, aggressive, or one-note.

How did you know that Esmeralda was a character that you wanted to play?
Whenever I get an audition for something, I’ll look at the character, I’ll read the script, and take a look and see if it’s something that I can really dig into. I love any female character that has strength. I think Esmeralda is a tough cookie, a no-nonsense chick who makes her way and does what she can to survive. I can definitely attest to that being a performance artist because this is a very tough business. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices over the years including not being close to my family. I’m from Florida, and I live in New York, so I get to see my family here and there but not all the time. I really enjoy a character that has a backbone, but also has some softness to her as well. I feel like this character has a lot of depth and a lot of real emotions that we women have all felt at one point or another in our lives.

Could you talk about what sort of strength she showcases in the show?
I think that strength comes from the fact that she is an outcast. She is a gypsy, so that means that she doesn’t belong anywhere. I think that that’s what brings so much depth to the character. When you don’t feel like you belong anywhere, the stakes are a little bit higher. She has to wake up every day, be up to the task, and just roll with the punches. Every day she has to gather herself, and constantly pick herself up.

What do you hope people take away from the show?
I hope that people will take away the idea of being more inclusive and being more accepting. I like to pick these pieces that are challenging and are really deep. I always hope for more inclusion and more understanding and more love. I hope that people come to this show and they feel moved in some way to take a look at their own lives, and their own behaviors, and perhaps shift their perspective.

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