Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

When the stage doors close, a documentary opens: How Alana Bright’s year brought her to HBO Max

The freshman musical theatre major who spent her first semester balancing classes and filming for HBO Max’s “Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020” shares her story and perspective of 2020.

What began as a social media campaign became USC freshman Alana Bright’s chance to be in an HBO Max musical documentary created by Tony Award-winning actress Laura Benanti.

Benanti took to Twitter in March 2020 asking high school students to share a final performance they missed due to the pandemic tagged with #SunshineSongs. The hashtag soon took off as students across the country used the hashtag to get the attention of Benanti and other musical theatre stars like Lin Manuel Miranda with their virtual performances.

The buzz gained HBO Max’s attention, which later greenlit the musical documentary in May. It was initially pitched to be a scripted special but soon pivoted to a documentary aired on Dec. 17, the documentary showcased the musical talent of high school seniors and the challenges they faced in 2020 by allowing them to perform a song of their choosing.

Bright, now a musical theatre major at USC, was cast as one of these students.

The documentary provided her the opportunity to bring hope and joy to the Black community.

Like many Americans, Bright was heavily impacted by the death of George Floyd and the stories of racism in America amplified over the summer of 2020. It was particularly poignant for Bright because she knew Floyd from her childhood.

“George Floyd and I went to the same church when I was around 14 or 13,” she said.

In the documentary, she remarks that people at her church called him “Big Floyd” and that he’d help out and set up chairs. Bright grew up in Houston, Texas, with Floyd, before moving to New Braunfels, Texas to live with her grandparents. After Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement’s weight brought out her desire to speak up about racial injustice, as she took to the streets to protest with her family and a few others in a racially ignorant Texas community.

“There was a lot of backlash,” she said in the documentary. “People were driving by with trucks, flipping us off, calling us slurs literally in the street out in the open.”

However, it didn’t stop her from continuing to speak up for the movement, her family or her life.

“I realized in that moment that Black joy is radical,” she said in the documentary. “Being joyful in a world where Black people are killed for no reason at all is a protest within itself.”

Standing in the middle of an open field, she sang “The Black National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” before the video transitioned to the streets of Houston where she sang “I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. next to murals of George Floyd. The city melted into a swarm of names: Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson and more. Each name was a Black American who lost their life at the hands of the police. Bright brought the viewer one step closer to Floyd through her performance by making him, his story and his community the setting of her video.

“I really wanted to give homage to where he came from and humanize him and make the world know that he came from a real place and real people knew him and he’s a person,” Bright said.

H.E.R. released “I Can’t Breathe” in June 2020 while the Black Lives Matter movement grew exponentially over the summer. Bright chose to perform the song because of H.E.R.’s ability to share things from a place of love.

“She always says what is so important and what needs to be said, but it’s still from a place of peace and love and understanding and hope,” Bright said about the musical artist. “And I think that’s the message that a lot of Black Americans, Black people needed at that moment, some peace and some hope and some serenity and joy.

To further emphasize the importance of hope during 2020, she added the intro of “The Black National Anthem” which perfectly began her video with the lyrics “lift every voice and sing.”

“I knew I wanted to still put an uplifting element in there as well, because as you know, Black people, we experienced so much trauma on a daily basis,” she said.

From singing in a field to dancing on an outdoor basketball court, she did just that with the help of her family. As the video came to a close, it cut to a little girl, Bright’s cousin, stepping on top of a chair and raising her fist high above her.

“She’s kind of like a little sister to me,” she said about her cousin. “And I definitely wanted to include her because she’s a product of our family, which is very loud and performative. And I know she wants to go into the arts at some point in the future. So I knew like I wanted to give her that exposure at the tender age of four.”

Bright’s family is pivotal to her video and her life. She explains in the documentary that she is a product of the matriarch because of her close connection with the women in her family. While in Houston for four years, she lived with her mom, aunt and her two cousins all under one roof. She was surrounded by women all the time, with the exception of her grandfather, she said.

“The people who are always holding it down to me, always making me happy were my grandmother, my mom, my aunt, and my great-grandmothers — I have both of my great-grandmothers growing up,” she said. “So all of my history, all of the things that I treasure really came from women, really came from this lineage of women that I had the pleasure of knowing.”

The women in her family influenced and helped her get to where she is today.

“I knew the magic and the strength of Black women from a very young age, and it’s always been something that I’ve made a goal to uplift and maintain,” Bright said.

Her connection to the women in her family also speaks to her song choice. Growing up, her musical interests were rooted in the R&B music her mother shared with her.

“Although I’m a musical theater major, and I love it, you know, my roots in music and performance don’t really come from, like, golden age and tap dancing,” Bright said. “They come from, like, R&B in my mom’s cars and old 90s hip hop.”

The process of filming and planning the video was a family effort. At the beginning of the process, filming equipment was sent to her house in large cases with COVID-19 protocols residing all production responsibilities in her hands. Through Zoom meetings, Bright and her family were directed by the HBO Max team as her grandparents took on the role as the camera people and Bright performed. Jumping from filming to reconvening with the rest of the cast on zoom, she brought together one-seventh of the documentary all while attending her first semester at USC.

“This is all a matter of fate,” she said. “Because if I had been in person, and if I had had the chance to go to college, physically, I don’t think I would be able to balance everything.”

Starting college online wasn’t an easy task either, especially in a major that requires students to act, sing and dance via Zoom.

“It taught me a lot of autonomy, like how to take control of what I need for me and adjust what I need for me without having to have someone be there,” she said. “So it’s really you know, improving the way I learned and the way I teach myself and the way I push myself.”

But she did not do this alone. The other six kids from across the nation involved in the project experienced everything — from graduating high school and starting college during a pandemic, social unrest and the challenges of filming — together.

“We had gotten so close over the course of filming,” Bright said. “Our common bond was everything we were going through, the struggles of filming by ourselves and at home and this process. And we’re all going through basically our first semester of college. We just became so close in that time without even having seen the special or know what everybody else’s personal stories were what was showcased.”

The opportunity Benanti provided cemented hope within Bright for her future.

“Getting to talk to her, know her and know that there are people in this industry that are looking out for you, looking out for your well-being and looking out for your success is just very comforting,” she said about Benanti.

Bright is now entering her second semester with excitement for new projects, classes and experiences as a musical theatre artist newly settled in Los Angeles. The documentary brought together a group of talented theater-makers who represent a new generation of artists surviving a pandemic and thriving while doing it.

“They’re beautiful in their thoughts and their stories really humble you and make you realize that like, there is hope,” Bright said about the cast. “And there’s a future in our generation.”

“Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020″ is available to stream on HBO Max.