Arts & Culture

Hip-hop and autism? They’re a perfect pair for young Coast performers in new musical

“The most interesting people you’ll find are ones that don’t fit into your average cardboard box. They’ll make what they need, they’ll make their own boxes.” — Dr. Temple Grandin

For many people, autism is something mysterious. But the writers of a new musical and the young people performing in it hope to help change that.

“Wonderland,” created by WINGS Performing Arts Program Creative Director Tonya Hays and hip-hop artist Genesis Be, takes the audience into a family’s struggle to navigate the challenges of a boy named Noah. His sister, Jenny, seeks to communicate with him through rhythm, rap, spoken word and echolalia, or repetition of words.

Coincidentally, all of the young performers in “Wonderland” have family or friends with autism. And one cast member, Chris Clemons, has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

He portrays one of the Stemmies, or personifications of ways that people with autism express stress, anger or frustration. Those might include flapping arms, walking on toes, humming, clicking fingers on a table or using a fidget spinner, cast members said. Clemons also uses his first-hand experience to help other cast members understand how someone with autism thinks and why they do what they do.

Ayden Ladner, who plays Noah, went to an elementary school and “saw a lot of kids and watched them. I do things in the show that they did.”

The storyline is woven together with hip hop — specifically, house hip hop, which is choreographer Eli Ladner’s specialty (he also plays one of the Stemmies).

Hip hop, said executive music producer and cowriter Genesis Be, works well with those with autism. “One of Noah’s gifts is echolalia, or the repetition of words or sounds,” she said. “Hip-hop is great medium through which to express themselves. Tanya and I had to do in-depth research into communication challenges.”

That research included looking into the origins of hip hop, as well as reading works by professor and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin and “The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism,” by Naoki Higashida.

While playing Noah, Ayden has gotten yet another perspective of the effect of autism.

“A lot of people might know the story of the autistic child, but not what the family goes through, what siblings go through,” he said.

Through the course of the play, some of the characters evolve into recognizable historic figures, all of whom were autistic.

“For instance, my character is kind of like the White Rabbit in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” said Christina Larson, whose character, Hope, helps Jenny through Wonderland as Jenny “searches” for her brother. “But as the story goes along, you see that I am Emily Dickinson.”

Joseph Jones is The Green Man, another of Jenny’s guides through Wonderland. “The Green Man is smart and wise, and then you get to see him as Albert Einstein,” he said.

Changing perspective by teaching the audience more understanding about autism is the goal of “Wonderland,” the young cast agreed.

Chris Clemons said because of his autism, “I’ve been bullied my whole life. Everyone views me as weird.”

His mom, Tanya Clemons, said it’s important for kids to learn more about their friends and classmates with autism.

“Knowledge is acceptance,” she said. “It’s the fear of the unknown. If they understand what’s going on, they can accept someone.”

“Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different…We are more like travelers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that might give us quiet pleasure.” — Naoki Higashida, “The Reason I Jump”

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

If you go

What: ‘Wonderland’ hip-hop musical

Where: WINGS Performing Arts & Education Building at Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, 246 Dolan Ave., Gulfport

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 10 and 11 and 3 p.m. Nov. 12

Tickets: $10 each at