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University digital stream of children's book musical inspires the community

Fruitvale Elementary School student Angalena Uribe-Drake was never supposed to speak. Doctors said she would not thrive due to a rare genetic disorder. Not long ago, Angalena was in hospice not expected to come back to school. Not only is she back at school, but Angalena is thriving in a way that inspired CMU theatre students to be better artists.

Two actors from the cast of Colorado Mesa University's musical Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: the Rock Experience were at Fruitvale on Friday, September 24. Murphy Baker and Ryan Heinsheimer were in full mole rat costume and character and had just completed a special surprise appearance with a third-grade class. Reading outside in the school yard, they were also joined by students with special needs. The actors read and performed the Mo Willems children's book that inspired the CMU musical. Having completed their visit, Baker and Heinsheimer made their way back to the parking lot when their progress was interrupted by the voice of a young girl.

"Hey mole rats, stop," the girl said.

With fingers intertwined with the school yard chain-link fence, she held in her other hand a note. Baker and Heinsheimer approached the fence, read the note and responded.

"I think I'm gonna cry," remarked Baker.

The little girl was Angalena and she had watched the CMU play the day before and enjoyed it. As the actors finished reading the book to the children, Angalena asked her aide Tobilynn Payne to take her inside so she could write them a letter.

The letter was a milestone moment for Angalena because in addition to assuming she would never speak, the idea of her being able to write was unthinkable. Dave McKeand is a special education teacher at Fruitvale and has been Angalena's teacher for five years. He believes that there is a spirit within Angalena that is undeniable and assists her in accomplishing the impossible.

"The musical inspired her to write, so her note to the CMU students means more than they will ever know," said Mr. Dave. "As someone who loves Angalena, and spends each day with her, a little milestone like that note represents a huge life moment for her development. I am so thankful for the university students and what they helped her to do."

When Angalena's mother, Alisha Drake, heard about the interaction, she was moved to tears hearing about her daughter's overture. No movement or action is easy for Angalena making her thoughtfulness even more meaningful for the CMU students.

"Angalena has been through so much and has faced so many challenges — we call her our miracle child," said Drake.

Beyond being moved to tears, the two student actors claimed her note and loving disposition gave them more to take back to campus that day than they gave.

"We spoke about Angalena the whole ride back," said Baker. "The experience re-inspired our acting that night for the show and reinvigorated our cast by reminding us what the arts and humanities are all about. She's had to face so much adversity but she was so generous and open with us — it was really beautiful and inspiring."

Baker also explained that Naked Mole Rat is about those who defy the expectations of others and do not have to follow the edicts others set forth for their lives. Angalena reflects transcending limitations and edicts perfectly.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 Superintendent Diana Sirko was on hand for the surprise visit and thanked the school and university for organizing the effort.

"Having CMU students help teach the importance of the arts to our students is very important," said Sirko. "Perhaps now more than ever during the pandemic, creative ways to support learning is key and it was a pleasure to watch the joy on the faces of our young students."

The surprise visit came on the heels of the university's streaming of the production into classrooms across the valley. The complimentary showing was proposed because current social distancing precautions make large scale school trips to the Moss Performing Art Center inadvisable. In a normal year, hundreds of children would be bused to Moss to view a theatre production. Instead, nearly 4000 students were able to view the show right in their classrooms.

"Our actors were disappointed that we wouldn't be able to have the kids attend so we opted to take the show to them, virtually," said Head of the Department of Theatre Arts Mo LaMee. "Willems wrote this book for the benefit of children and being able to stream this charming story directly to their classrooms is something that meant a lot to our actors and production staff."

Two copies of the book, signed by the CMU cast and its director, Jeremy Franklin, have been donated —one to the Fruitvale Elementary School library and one to Angalena Uribe-Drake.

CMU is offering additional theatre and dance performances in 2020-21 and continues exploring new and creative ways to make them available in the face of social distancing and limited seating challenges. The next show is She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms, the department's first entirely digital production in collaboration with the CMU film and animation program, which will stream on demand from October 30 through November 8.

Learn more about the 2020-21 theatre and dance season.

  • Angalena Uribe-Drake meets the mole rats

    Angalena Uribe-Drake meets the mole rats.

  • Actors Murphy Baker and Ryan Heinsheimer pose with 3rd grade students from Fruitvale Elementary School

    Actors Murphy Baker and Ryan Heinsheimer pose with 3rd grade students from Fruitvale Elementary School.

  • CMU student actor Murphy Baker signs a copy of "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed"

    CMU student actor Murphy Baker signs a copy of "Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed".