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Jisel Soleil Ayon has never been a waitress and never baked a pie.
But the star of “Waitress,” coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Oct. 22 and 23, plans on baking every pie in the musical’s official cookbook when the Los Angeles-based actress, 22, is home for the holidays.
She wasn’t even a pie fan until landing the role of Jenna, a young pie-baking waitress stuck in a bad marriage and an accidental pregnancy, who sees a pie-baking contest with a $20,000 prize as her ticket to freedom.
Fresh strawberry pie is Ayon’s new favorite, even though it’s basically “just cut strawberries in a crust,” she said by phone from Bloomington, Ind., on Oct. 4, just a day away from launching the national tour at Indiana University.
“Before I started rehearsals, I really hadn't eaten many pies, and so I would typically tell people that I wasn't a fan of pie and I didn't like pie,” she said.
“And so the day before I flew out to start rehearsal in New York, I got with a friend and I ordered 15 to 20 different slices of pie. We sat down, we watched the ‘Waitress’ film and I taste-tested a large variety of pies so that I could find pies that I liked — and I did.”
But she and her friend didn’t exactly win a pie-eating contest that night.
“We didn't even finish a single slice of pie,“ she said. ”We just took a couple of bites of each pie because we knew there was so much in front of us.“
After being idle during much of the pandemic, she dug her fork right into her new adventure, coming off a whirlwind production schedule of playing the leading roles of Cosette in “Les Miserables“ from April through June, followed by Sarah Brown in ”Guys and Dolls“ in July, both in Utah, then taking an ensemble turn with ”Footloose“ in upstate New York from Aug. 4 to Sept. 1.
Four days later, she went to New York City to begin rehearsals with three other principal actors in ”Waitress,“ her first national touring show. A week later, they met up with the rest of the cast in Ohio for a week of rehearsals, followed by two weeks of ”running the show and putting it on its feet,“ she said.
Their pandemic protocols have included weekly COVID testing, wearing masks when not onstage, and daily reporting of any symptoms that would require an emergency test. They also are expected to take precautions and wear masks whenever they venture from their hotel, like for meals.
The masks aren’t cramping their style. It’s the show itself that will keep them from exploring the nightlife in their host cities. “We’re just exhausted” after performing, she said.
She perked up in a New York minute when Sara Bareilles stopped by a rehearsal. The pop singer/songwriter not only wrote the music and lyrics for “Waitress,” but is back in the lead role on Broadway through Oct. 17.
“That was just so cool,” Ayon said of being photographed with Bareilles. “First she actually visited us in rehearsal. She watched as we worked on a scene and we sang two songs for her. And then the next day, we got to go see her in the show on Broadway. And then the day after that is when I took pictures with her on the Broadway stage before one of her matinees.”
Ayon confided in her about having “impostor syndrome,” where she was afraid she wouldn’t live up to all the woman playing Jenna before her. Talking to Bareilles eased her mind.
“She was saying this is a show and a role where we want the individual to bring themselves to Jenna. … And don't worry about not being Jessie (Mueller, who originated the role on Broadway) or Shoshana (Bean) or me, or whoever, because … you're not them, and we don't want you to be them.
“And so that was really nice. Something that she did say — this is an exact quote and it's something that will stick with me for a while, just because I aim to be someone who is a pleasure to work with and you obviously don't know how you come off, because most of the time people don't tell you things about yourself.
“But she said, ‘You should hear all the nice things that people are saying behind your back.’ And I was like, oh my gosh, that is so nice. I don't think I'll ever forget that. She was just very lovely and she was like, you're going to be amazing, and she was just so sweet,” Ayon said.
“There's a quote from the show, that's where Don says to Jenna, ‘You are the queen of kindness and goodness,’ and I think that Sara Bareilles is a queen of kindness and goodness.”
Ayon has nothing but praise to say about the way the music moves forward the action in a show where various characters face really difficult challenges and life choices.
Ayon described Jenna as “a fighter … who has taken some beatings in life both metaphorically and literally. But she has never let it wear away at her kindness and patience for other people. She's a giver. She lets life take from her. She gives to others, and she doesn't necessarily remember to always give back to herself, until the very end. She has this realization moment where she decides to start fighting for herself again.”
The music reflects the show’s every mood.
“I don’t know how, but every song captures the exact emotion that you were supposed to feel in the scene,” Ayon said. “I could not explain how (Bareilles) does that and I could not tell you why, really. But it does. if you're supposed to be turned on, that’s exactly what you feel. And if you're supposed to feel heartbreak, that's exactly what you feel. It's in the orchestrations, it's in the melody, it's in all of it. She's just a genius. …
“It's just amazing what she managed to do with this show. And you can just tell how finely crafted it is. She crafted the heck out of this.”
On her website, Ayon describes herself as “a statuesque cocktail of African American and Latina ferocity with a sturdy mix belt and sugary soprano sound.”
It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most exciting and satisfying aspects of taking Jenna on the road is being able to show young females that a woman of color can be cast in a role like this one, where she’s onstage for “all but about three minutes” of the show.
She gets emotional thinking about being the person to show them a character where “the storyline has nothing to do with what color I am or what my ethnicity is,” she said. That’s something she would have loved seeing as a child.
"Ten years ago, it wasn't a thing,“ she said. “If I saw a role with a white woman, I would immediately assume that I couldn't play that role because she was white. And so the fact that I'll be able to take this across the country and show so many little girls and young women that they can do this and the fact that they'll look up at me and see that there is someone that looks like them doing it — I mean, it's better than words, really.”
She credits that shift in casting to a shift in awareness.
“We're in this time where the industry is trying to be much more inclusive,” she said. “If I was trying to do this industry 10 years ago, I would say I would be having problems (winning roles). I'm luckily in such a great time to be a woman of color. And so it (has) probably helped me.
"The state of Utah isn't necessarily the most diverse state. So was I good enough for them to cast me? Yes, I believe talent-wise, they thought I was good enough to cast me. But it does not escape me that it was definitely, probably a bonus for them that I was a woman of color auditioning out of state for a show in Utah. They never said that, obviously.
“They never said, we're looking for a woman of color for that one. Nor did they say, we cast you partially because you're a woman of color. However, I know that is definitely something that helped.
“So in this time, being a woman of color is actually aiding me, because that's what people want right now. People want to be able to have that diversity and I can provide that for them. I'm grateful for it right now.”
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