When it comes to controversial plays, these plays are usually censored by a university before they even have a chance to be put up on stage. However, from January 17-19, The Other Theater Project, a student-run theater company, presented their production of House of Gold in the Black Box theater, here at CSUSB.
House of Gold tells the story of 6-year-old beauty pageant star JonBenet Patricia Ramsey, who was found dead in the basement of her home in December of 1996. Although the cause of Ramsey’s death is still unclear today, the theatrical production explores the themes of child beauty pageants and their over-sexualization of children’s bodies and child abuse.
This show was directed by fifth-year student Emily Ellis, who was inspired to direct the show due to its message about the child beauty pageant industry.
“This show can be very controversial,” said Ellis. “There are characters based off of real people and scenes that are over-dramatizations of what actually happened. However, that stuff was still happening and is still there, and it’s really important to talk about because these are issues that have been brushed under the rug for so long.”
Because of the controversial nature of the show, it took Ellis and her colleagues five months to get the production approved by the department, despite the support they received from the faculty.
“I had a really great support system while directing the show,” continued Ellis. “The faculty was always checking in with us and making sure we had everything we needed to get the show done.”
Although the students got a lot of help and support for this production, they also faced some challenges along the way due to the dark nature of the show and its characters.
Vanessa Reynosa, the actress who played JonBenet, said, “It was really challenging playing as JonBenet because what she’d been through was very different from how I was brought up. It really made me think, ‘how can someone go through that?’”
Similarly, fourth-year Tiffany Renfrow stated that it was difficult for her to get into the mind of her character, Woman, because she was based on a real person who was suspected of murder.
“A big part of being an actor is believing in your character,” said Renfrow, “so a big challenge was believing that what my character was saying was right.”
Renfrow even said that she told her friends that they were not supposed to enjoy the show when they saw it. “You’re supposed to look at my character and see that that was a bad person, to an extent,” said Renfrow.
Despite all the challenges the cast and crew went through to create this production, they supported each other and got through it so they can send their message to the audience.
“There really is a big problem with over-sexualization in the world, and child beauty pageants are part of that problem,” continued Renfrow. “If JonBenet was allowed to be who she was, she would have had an amazing life. It’s heartbreaking to know she really didn’t get that choice.”
Zach Miulli, the actor who played Detective, added, “I want people to be more aware of what their actions are how they affect others, and I think it’s really good that we’re doing a show like this. Since I’ve been here, there haven’t been any controversial or thought-provoking shows. Theater is supposed to make you think.”
After their Saturday night show, audience members left the theater quietly, processing what they watched. Audience member, Angelica Highsmith said, “I thought it was going to be more about JonBenet’s murder, but it was not. It was more about the sexualization of a child’s body. It made me think, so it definitely did its job.”
Similarly, Melineth Rivera stated, “I didn’t know what I expected, but the show was amazing and very touching.”
With the show’s run now over, the cast hopes that those who saw the production became more aware of the issues regarding beauty pageants and the media.
“Hopefully those who are affected negatively by pageants understand that it’s not their fault and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of the things that people made them do. Hopefully, they can move on and have a fulfilling life,” concluded Ellis. “You never really know what an individual has been through, and seeing a production like House of Gold can be really liberating for them.”