Dee Abdullah was searching for a young Latina who could rap to co-star in the production shes directing, How We Got On, with the Carolina Actors Studio Theater.
Genesis Soto, 17 and a junior at Vance High School, turned out to be the perfect fit.
At the very first rehearsal, Abdullah instructed the main cast Genesis and two professional actors to improvise a scene. She wanted them each to play characters convinced theyre the best rappers around.
She came out and she blew them away, Abdullah said. She just got all in (one actors) face and she blew him away, and she didnt know him from anything. I said, OK, thats my girl. Thats my girl.
Abdullah had found her through Genesis theater teacher at Vance, a friend. I went and met with her and loved her instantly, Abdullah said.
Genesis has been rapping since age 10 and has competed in rap battles since then informal competitions between two freestyling rappers, with the surrounding crowd determining the winner.
She recalls singing the chorus of an Eminem song when she was 10 and discovering she could freestyle: I forgot what the rest of the lyrics were, so I made them up and they happened to rhyme, and I said to myself, Oh my gosh, this is cool, she said.
Shes been rapping ever since.
Genesis earned some respect early on in her second week of high school, when she was challenged to a rap battle.
Oh, you can freestyle? a friend in class asked her. He was a rapper, too. So at lunchtime, they went head to head: She rapped about what popped into her head, which happened to be Wendys. She won.
Shes been in about 20 rap battles since then, and said shes lost four or five. Losing is a tough blow to her confidence: Once, I gave up rap for a year. Its pretty devastating.
But acting is what Genesis loves the most, and shes known that from a young age.
Genesis can recall the first time someone told her she should go into theater. She was in kindergarten and kept getting in front of an observation camera in the classroom to introduce viewers to the class.
Her teacher told her, You know what, Genesis? You should be an actress, youre so dramatic, Genesis remembers. Soon after, she starred in the school plays production of Peter Pan as Peter Pan, and didnt care when people made fun of her for playing a boy.
Eleven years later, Genesis finds herself performing with a professional group, which Abdullah said is not the norm for someone so young.
The main message of the story, which Genesis said is to persevere despite mistakes, resonates with her.
Transitioning from high school theater to the real deal wasnt easy for Genesis. In school productions, you play a character. In community productions, you are the character, she said.
Genesis said it was so hard she sometimes considered dropping out.
Abdullah kept telling her that she cast her for a reason. I told her, I chose you because I know you can really do the part, I know you can do it, she said. Finally one day it really clicked with her. It just magically clicked and she got it and fell right into the rhythm of it.
All that time spent learning to become the character Luann meant Genesis had to work to keep her grades up. Her mother worried, but that hasnt been a problem.
Shes strong academically, said Melissa Dunlap, principal of Vance.
Genesis mom, Diana Soto, wants to make sure she gets a college degree and preferably go on to law school before going forward with acting aspirations. A diploma is very important to me, she said, adding that she made it a requirement that Genesis maintain her grades at school while being a part of How We Got On.
Still, her mother said, its special to see her daughter perform. Its wonderful.
Genesis said shed like to study pre-law with a minor in theater, perhaps at UNC Charlotte. But she still dreams of Hollywood.
I want to be sitting next to Tom Cruise, playing footsy with Brad Pitt, getting a massage from Zac Efron telling my heart to Taylor Swift and Meryl Streep writing it all down, she said.