The name Edna St. Vincent Millay doesn’t mean much to most people. For many, it may just seem like a mouthful.
Despite being the youngest person and first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay’s story has been long forgotten, lost to the untouched bookshelves and worn literary anthologies of history.
UB’s ‘Renascence’ dusts off those century-old shelves. Through powerful songs and emotionally intense performances, they mend the tattered pages that make up Millay’s unconventional, trailblazing life. The show, which completed its run this Sunday in the Center for the Arts, was a musical rebirth, narrating Millay’s overlooked tale through her self-written, life-encompassing poems.
Most importantly, the production spoke eloquently to the importance of telling LGBTQ+ stories in theatre. On top of being a groundbreaking poet who shook up the literary world, Millay also navigated the challenges of being a queer woman in the 1920s.
It’s not a show that audiences are familiar with, but to Allinee NeGron, a sophomore musical theatre major who played Millay’s mother, that’s what makes it an excitingly unique challenge.
“There’s not a lot of shows like it because it really causes you to think,” NeGron said. “It’s not the classic musical like the Disney shows or the really commercial musicals or a jukebox musical. Because it’s not songs that everyone knows and loves already. It’s characters and poems put to songs that no one’s really ever heard before.”
Millay isn’t singing “...Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears or “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t pack a punch. With less overtly sensual or explicitly queer lyrics, Millay’s poetry serves as a beautiful backdrop for her own life story as an LGBTQ+ woman in a time where her identity was anything but socially acceptable.
Kyra Orgass, the senior musical theatre major playing the poet of the hour, embraced the opportunity to represent the LGBTQ+ community in the role, as a member herself.
“She’s such an influential person that gets dismissed and ignored a lot of the time. Personally, I didn’t even know who she was before this show was chosen for UB,” Orgass said. “[It’s meaningful] getting to live her story as a whole because she was so important, but specifically getting to live that she was what we now consider pansexual. I think it’s just a great opportunity to bring to the UB stage.”
Castmate Kira Whitehead, the senior musical theatre major playing Millay’s love interest, Elaine, echoed that sentiment. Whitehead, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said this representation was vital for audiences — and Whitehead.
“I think the themes of love and loss are really special about ‘Renascence’ and especially finding yourself in the show. The show helped me find myself for sure,” Whitehead said. “It helped me find a sense of confidence that Elaine brings to the show that I don’t think I necessarily have, but it was good to explore that in myself.”
With both actresses of the show’s core lesbian relationship being members of the LGBTQ+ community, UB recognized the lived experience needed to authentically tell a story like Millay’s — and the actresses are grateful for the opportunity to faithfully share it.
“Not only is it a marginalized group today, but especially in this time that the musical is set in, during the 1920s, it’s especially marginalized then,” Orgass said. “I think it takes a certain lens to be able to accurately portray that, and I think it’s for the best that casting is done in that manner.”
Millay’s tumultuous and sudden rise to literary stardom was not without its pitfalls: being abandoned by her father, being snubbed by a life-changing poetry contest, leaving her rural home for the city and more. Those challenges, on top of her queer identity, culminate in a life fraught with tragedy — despite the successes.
Orgas chose to “play the positive” and has a similarly bright outlook on both the show and Millay’s life.
“There was a certain beauty to be found in portraying the story because at the end of the day, even though she did endure so much loss, something beautiful came out of it,” Orgass said. “We got her beautiful works of poetry.”
The legacy of her writing long surpasses her own lifetime. UB’s production cannot resurrect her, but it certainly breathed new life into the message behind her work.
“It shows that queer people were here, back then. We’re still here now,” Jack Catena, a junior musical theatre major who played Millay’s first editor, said. “She did so much. She was very open about her sexuality. She published so many love sonnets and poems about her queer relationships and shows that we can be here. We can be heard. We can have power. We exist, and we’re great at existing.”
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
— Excerpts from “Renascence” (1917), Edna St. Vincent Millay
Alex Novak is the senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.