In her 10 years living in Chelsea, Grace Muwina has volunteered her time to help protect the city’s green spaces, support low-income families, preserve an historic home, and promote fitness.
Recently, Muwina’s multifaceted community work was celebrated in an unusual way — through an operetta that also recounted the life story that brought Muwina to Chelsea from her native Zambia.
Inspired by the work of local volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chelsea-based Apollinaire Theatre Company is presenting three free operettas this summer about the lives of city residents nominated by local organizations for their contributions to the community.
The plays, which began July 25 with the operetta about Muwina, are being presented over Zoom, available to all who reserve tickets.
“It’s been pretty amazing watching different community groups step up to face the pandemic,” said Danielle Fauteux Jacques, Apollinaire’s artistic director. “So we wanted to celebrate our community and the details of people’s lives that make them interesting and unique and wonderful.”
The play about Muwina, who was nominated by the local environmental group GreenRoots, was set to be followed by an Aug. 1 play about longtime Chelsea couple Terry and Joe Englen, nominated by The Neighborhood Developers, and an Aug. 8 play about Honduran immigrant Jessica L. Armijo, nominated by The Chelsea Collaborative.
“It’s been humbling and exciting,” said Muwina, a stay-at-home mother of two girls. “I’m honored to be part of the story of Chelsea ― there are so many people here with great stories and backgrounds.”
A board member and longtime volunteer with GreenRoots —particularly with its social justice initiatives — Muwina also is active with the Chelsea Community Connections social service agency, sits on the board of the Bellingham-Cary House historical home, and leads some of Chelsea’s Wednesday neighborhood walks.
Muwina likes that the plays also are highlighting Apollinaire’s own contributions to Chelsea, noting that some residents who had not been to one of its plays before are now “getting to know and appreciate what the theater does in the community.”
Founded in 1995, Apollinaire stages three plays annually in its restored theater, Chelsea Theatre Works. It also offers free summer theater in a local park and recently opened two new theaters in its building — one for its youth drama programs and one leased to other performing arts groups.
When the pandemic hit in March, Apollinaire had to postpone its final play of the season, which was then in rehearsal, and cancel its outdoor summer theater season.
But the company quickly pivoted to virtual programming, which has included group readings of plays by its actors and members of the public; readings of previously performed plays by original cast members; and now the operettas.
Apart from portraying actual local residents, the operetta series is distinctive because the company is allotting just six days to create and stage each play — a process that begins when the actors, composers, and directors interview the community members involved.
“A lot of the fun is in the spontaneity,” said Jacques, who is also directing the plays.
“I like the pressure of a quick turnaround,” said Allyssa Jones, one of the composers of the plays, because “it requires me to go with my gut” and create songs based on what she felt in the moments she heard the community members tell their stories.
What motivated her to take part in the series, Jones said, is that “these are real people and real stories.”
“We are showing these people through this process that we are really inspired by them,” she said. “And to have it presented back to their neighborhoods is very cool.”
For ticket information, go to Apollinairetheatre.com.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.