Student production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘21 Chump Street’ tackles injustice in U.S. police system

A female student in a purple shirt hands money to a male student in a jean jacket.
Hershey Suri PO ’21 and Keith Ferguson PO ’20 performed as the main characters in the 5C production of  “21 Chump Street” on Dec. 12. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

Boy meets girl. Girl doesn’t like boy. Boy does whatever it takes to win over said girl.

While this may sound like a typical teenage love story, “21 Chump Street” is about much more than that. Based on an episode of “This American Life” and written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical tackles the injustice and prejudice embedded in the U.S. police system in just 20 minutes.

“21 Chump Street” sparked conversation, engagement and entertainment among 5C students during its on-campus run from Thursday to Friday at the Rose Hills Theatre. It tells the true story of a high school student who fell for an undercover police officer — one who ended up arresting him for selling drugs that he bought to impress her. 

When Hershey Suri PO ’21, who played the undercover cop Naomi Rodriguez in the 5C production, saw the musical at a theater festival in Upland, she said she instantly “fell in love with the show.” Suri explained how she strongly appreciated the play’s relevance to both the personal and the political, as it “told a story of heartbreak, corruption and manipulation.” 

“21 Chump Street” takes place in high school, and it deals with commonplace emotions of love and the desire to win the approval of others. But it also discusses issues relevant to American politics, like mass incarceration. 

“I think the whole [show] is an ethics inquiry into what is right and wrong in our society … It’s very apparent that there is inherent racism within our police system,” Suri said.

She made it her mission to bring “21 Chump Street” to the Claremont Colleges.

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“Not only is the musical so relevant to the issues we face today with the police system, our political system and other societal institutions, but it also looks at the effects that drugs and marijuana have on a college campus, which is something that’s very prevalent here,” she said. 

The students in charge of casting decided to conduct color conscious casting, meaning they assigned certain roles based on students’ race, according to Keith Ferguson PO ’20, who played the main character, Justin Laboy. 

He said he appreciated the intentional choice, expressing how works of art are always created with specific subjects and audiences in mind.

“I don’t think there’s ever such a thing as colorblind casting,” he said. “When individuals write roles, they write them with their selves in mind, creating characters who look like themselves and have common experiences as themselves.”

Ferguson believes the casting choice enabled him to give a more truthful and authentic portrayal of Laboy. Although Ferguson is African American and his character, Justin Laboy, is Puerto Rican, Ferguson believes that his version of Laboy demonstrates the intersection between marginalized experiences of people of color. 

“Being a black man and being put in a role where there’s an accidental drug deal, what comes out of that is very impactful because of my positionality in society,” Ferguson said. “If I would have been caught in the same situation [as my character], the persecution would be so much heavier than if I were a white man.” 

The production team of “21 Chump Street,” with director Emily Ramirez PO ’22, partnered with various school departments and student organizations, including 5C Prison Abolition, Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy, Pan-African Student Association and Chicano Latino Student Affairs. Together, the students of the show and these clubs hosted a talkback after the show, further exploring the themes and creative process behind it. 

Ferguson said he looked forward to the after-show discussion the most.

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“Collaborative theater and theater for social change are very important,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of advocates and different perspectives in the room, and I think that that stimulates not just powerful conversation, but also the palpable air of hope — the hope that these conversations are happening for something to come out of them.”

Suri agreed that the performances of “21 Chump Street” opened necessary dialogue at the 5Cs, allowing students to meaningfully unpack and debunk issues surrounding the U.S. police and prison system.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people truly don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the police system. People are fully in support of what the police do, and it’s hard to negate that,” she said. “This show conveys a message that the Claremont Colleges are aware of, but need to hear more of and have an open space to have these conversations.”

Ferguson added that the issues the play addresses aren’t new.

“‘21 Chump Street’ is timeless … It’s a narrative that keeps being repeated. This musical only tells it in a different way,” he said.

Ferguson further emphasized the witty and intelligent vitality of the show and how he was proud to be a part of it. 

“It’s only 20 minutes, but it’s sweet, it’s short, it’s powerful,” he said. “It’s an equally fun, challenging and thought-provoking show.”

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