Senior, a Lead in “Born Yesterday,” Balances Theater and Criminal Justice

By Tom McLaughlin

Soon the curtains will open and Shaheera Hussein will grace the Walter K. Gordon Theater stage as live theater returns to Rutgers University–Camden, Oct. 21-24.

Hussein as Hope Harcourt in last year’s production of Anything Goes

The Rutgers–Camden senior will play the lead character Billie Dawn in the university’s production of Garson Kanin’s classic comedy Born Yesterday. As she tells it, it was a bit of a challenge to play Billie, a “quirky, uneducated gal” who, unlike her, always has her sights set on the future.

“That was the very intimidating part for me,” says the Plainsboro Township resident. “I am more of a go-with-the-flow kind of person, who tries to stay as present in the moment as I can. Planning for the future isn’t something that I typically do, unless it’s something necessary.”

It is Hussein’s unscripted approach to life and her openness to accept new challenges that now finds her months away from graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees in theater and criminal justice, with ultimate plans to serve as a civil rights attorney.

In that role, Hussein hopes to help fix what she calls a broken criminal justice system. She hasn’t decided what type of law she wants to enter, but one thing is clear: she wants to help those who can’t help themselves.

“I want to help those marginalized groups – people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community – as well as those who have suffered financially due to the undue fees and fines that they need to pay in order to walk away freely,” she says. “I want to put my own two cents in, to do my part to fix this system.”

Hussein as Marcy Park in the spring 2019 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Reflecting on her varied interests, Hussein is as surprised as anyone by where her ambitions have led her. She recalls that, growing up, she admittedly didn’t have much interest in theater. She did, however, play the violin since she was 9 years old and later added piano to her repertoire.

Her interests in performing arts came more into focus during her first year at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North when her orchestra class was practicing a Phantom of the Opera medley and her teacher brought them to Broadway to see the show in person. The show began, Hussein recalls, and she sat mesmerized watching the soprano Christine sing. She knew then that singing and performing is what she wanted to do.

“I said, ‘That’s who I want to be,’” she remembers.

Hussein began taking voice lessons and, a year later, auditioned for the school’s production of The Odd Couple. She didn’t get the part, but ended up working as a stage assistant on the show. Undeterred, she then auditioned for the school’s production of the musical West Side Story and landed the lead role of Maria.

“It was crazy,” she says. “I was still very new to theater, so to accomplish something that big with my lack of experience was very exciting.”

Hussein’s upstart career in theater continued at Rutgers–Camden when she played the role of Marcy Park in the spring 2019 production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. She later played Hope Harcourt in last year’s production of Anything Goes. Despite pursuing a degree in criminal justice, she couldn’t resist adding theater to the mix.

Hussein as Billie Dawn and Keith Schlapfer as Paul Verrall during rehearsals for the production of “Born Yesterday.”

“I realized it’s a passion that I just can’t see myself letting go of,” she says.

Hussein’s own story recently came full circle as she participated in an open casting call for the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera. She didn’t get a callback, but she is proud that she tried.

“It was always one of my biggest dreams, so nothing was going to stop me,” she says. “I didn’t get the part, but that dream felt so tangible in that moment.”

Meanwhile, Hussein recalls that her first interest in criminal justice came from the most unlikely of places – as a fan of the comedy-drama TV show Psych. The show centers around a character who uses his extraordinary observational skills to solve crimes and convince people that he’s actually psychic.

She became increasingly “intrigued” by issues of law and law enforcement and arrived at Rutgers–Camden as a criminal justice major in 2018. Her interests piqued in summer 2020, when she attended civil rights protests and felt a pressing need to speak out.

“That was my awakening; it’s what contributed to me wanting to be a lawyer,” she says. “I felt that I needed to share what was on my mind. I talked about issues nonstop, I wrote papers just to get everything out, and I was very vocal on social media.”

At Rutgers–Camden, Hussein spoke recently about Islamophobia in post-9/11 America and a traumatic experience she had endured traveling overseas for the Voices of Immigration podcast. The interdisciplinary podcast, created for and by students, focuses on the experiences of various generations of immigrants.

By sharing such personal experiences, says Hussein, she hopes that people can become aware of bias and discrimination and make an effort to become more educated on these issues.

“It doesn’t take much to take time out of your day to educate yourself,” she says.

As the Rutgers–Camden senior approaches graduation, she is quick to note that her majors might seem like divergent paths, but they actually go hand-in-hand.

“In a courtroom, it’s a kind of performance,” she says. “You must prepare thoroughly for a trial, just like rehearsing for a show, and you are on stage in front of a judge and jury just as you are before a theater audience.”

True to form, Hussein hasn’t decided which career path she will pursue first upon graduating.

“Whatever I succeed at first, that’s what it’s going to be,” she says. “The rest will fall into place.”

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