A Weehawken native is playing “Joan” in 42nd Street Moon’s rendition of “FUN HOME.”
The musical runs from April 21 until May 8 at the Gateway Theatre at 215 Jackson Street in San Francisco. An opening night is set for April 23 at 6 p.m., and tickets are available at 42ndstmoon.org/fun-home.
“FUN HOME,” with a book and lyrics Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir. “FUN HOME” explores Bechdel’s life at three different ages, delving into her journey of discovering her sexuality and her relationship with her father.
Meet Sophia Alawi
In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, Alawi discussed her upbringing, her role as “Joan” in “FUN HOME,”and some upcoming events she has planned in her life.
Alawi was born and raised in Weehawken. She started taking a liking toward musical theater just before high school.
“I definitely caught the bug in eighth grade during the productions in Weehawken,” Alawi said. “I remember we did ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ And I did musicals before that, the year prior, and I liked it. But it was something about doing ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ that eighth grade year that I realized I could do this for the rest of my life.”
High school had its ups and downs, according to Alawi. But she was able to find solid opportunities when it comes to musical theater after she moved to Union City.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Union City that I had more opportunities in theater,” she said. “Weehawken just had two musicals every year. They didn’t really have any acting classes and stuff like that. But Union City offered more classes and it had a better theater program. I got more involved there and that’s when I really became a theater kid.”
Alawi’s senior year of high school, she got involved with shows in New York City. She attended training programs in the city for two years before figuring out how she wanted to approach musical theater in college.
“Once I figured that out, I went to school for musical theater,” she said. “As I started doing it, I realized, I don’t just want to do musical theater, I want to write, to do film, and do anything involving the theatrical arts at all.”
Alawi graduated from Rider University, launching her career I the musical theater industry. And she got a great first response.
“After Rider, there was this showcase and I got a really great response,” she said. “So I got an agent coming out of college, and that put me into some great opportunities for theater.”
A nomad, searching for work
Since then, Alawi has been navigating the life of an actor, traveling to where the opportunities take her.
“As an actor, you’re a nomad,” she said. “You go anywhere they’re going to give you a job. I’ve always found that really cool, getting to go away from where I grew up and experience new places and stuff.”
In 2019, Alawi got a gig out in San Francisco, when she first fell in love with the city. She was working steadily there until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a crashing halt in 2020. While Alawi left, she returned to the Bay Area where she had left her heart.
“There was no theater for like two years,” she said, noting that it was hard to find opportunities amid COVID-19. But, determined to stay in San Francisco, she found the gigs she needed in order to stay, with some things coming full circle.
“I came back to do another show and I got another show here after that,” she said. “Then I found a job teaching theater to eighth graders. I’m also directing a musical production at a private school over here. So everything came full circle. Eighth grade was the year that sparked my interest in theater and now I’m teaching eighth graders theater.”
Around September and October of 2021, Alawi said that the opportunities began to pour in again as the world opened up more. She was performing as part of show called “Twelfth Night” put on by SF Playhouse. That ran until the Omicron variant shut everything down again. However, the virus settled again and soon the opportunity to be a part of “FUN HOME” came before Alawi.
“COVID-19 was rearing it’s head back, but then I got cast in this two months after,” she said. “I’m just really happy to be back in the swing of things, working again.”
Living her best life in San Francisco
Alawi is now playing “Joan” in 42nd Street Moon’s “FUN HOME.” The production is in full swing after a two-week rehearsal period.
“My character is pretty cool,” she said. “She’s not a big role, but I find ease in that. I’m coming into scenes and my character is really chill. She’s a real person and is more confident in her sexuality than the main character Alison. Alison has a journey throughout the show where she’s coming out and finding herself. Joan is already established as a lesbian and as an activist.”
Alawi said it was not too difficult to be herself and be the character, given the free-spiritedness and steadfast confidence of “Joan.”
“I found that really easy, considering who Joan is as a character in relationship to who I am,” she said. Alawi can now relate to that, but she wasn’t always in that position.
According to Alawi, her personal experience identity growing up as a first-generation American born to a Muslim family is something she is looking to explore and embody in a production entirely of its own. She is currently writing, starring in, and producing a film inspired by her life called ‘Hayawan.’
“It has been crazy,” Alawi said. “I’ve had a lot of identity crises about that because being first-generation is hard, with your parents being immigrants, not being established in this country, and not having the same opportunities. Some theater kids that I went to school with or I did shows with had their family here for generations or have been more established. Their parents could pay for piano lessons, ballet, and acting classes. They had stage moms. But being first-generation American and my parents being immigrants, they had to work.”
Navigating her identity
While her family wasn’t unsupportive, Alawi was the first to endeavor into acting and was alone in her journey. Her mother is a Morroccan fashion designer she calls the unofficial ambassador of Morroccan culture, frequently putting on fashion shows and other events.
“I’m the black sheep in the sense that I am the only person in my family that has had the acting bug,” she said. “No one in my family does that, so it’s been a lonely journey of navigating that all on my own, especially because my parents couldn’t provide classes and stuff like that.”
However, Alawi did not let that nor anything hold her back.
“I did everything that was free,” Alawi said. “I did everything that was in school. I had to work and pay for my own classes. So I did always feel like I got the short end of the stick in that way.”
Alawi also drew inspiration from her mother to help her.
“Something about my mom being an artist kind of didn’t making it so daunting to me. The artist life is hard,” Alawi said, comparing it to the life of an actor. “There are times when I’m completely broke, or times when I’m not so completely broke. There are times when I’m in a show, and then there’s six months where I’m auditioning, and have 10 callbacks and none of them work out. It’s unpredictable, and can be stressful for people that are brought up with a little bit more structure, but I think because my mom was an artist and didn’t have an exact structure like most people, I didn’t grow up thinking structure was the only option… That helped me come to peace with that and know that I can always go away from that and have a regular job. A lot of actors here have full time jobs and they still act. They do both.”
Looking ahead, but remembering the past
Alawi’s hard work eventually led her to success in San Francisco, which she said is gratifying considering the path it took to get there.
“There’s definitely still hurdles to jump through as an actor, but every show that I get an opportunity to perform and get paid to do it is a blessing,” she said. “Every show you do and every relationship you make as an actor leads you to the next thing.”
Regardless of where she goes, Alawi always remembers her roots and the struggles she went through to get where she is. She noted this was especially important following Islamophobia she and her family faced in the wake of 9/11.
“My mom was an artist, but she was also catering,” she said. “My parents gad a gyro restaurant in Jersey City. I remember I was about six years old and my parents were the most financially stable because of this restaurant. It got shut down and we lost so much business after 9/11… My parents were doing really well, but… then they lost so much business. And the people in the mall wanted to kick them out because they were Muslim.”
Despite these additional hardships that Alawi faced, she did not let that stop her. And she plans to share her full story through her Hayawan film. For more information, go to hayawanfilm.com or sophiaalawi.com.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.