Savannah musician writes and produces film about daughter with Down syndrome

“I would like to live in a world where time could be manipulated.”

The opening line of April Aguilera’s one-woman acoustic musical “A Sea Full of Stars” is a sentiment that describes the initial relationship the local writer, producer and singer-songwriter had with one of his daughters.

When Aguilera was pregnant with her second daughter Paloma, she opted out of having a prenatal test. For nine months Aguilera had this dream which suddenly dissolved when her second daughter was born and the doctor told her that Paloma had Down syndrome.

Time stopped.

Aguilera went catatonic as everything around her swirled.

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Paloma was placed in her arms and the maternal bond that usually clicks at this time was broken. Embarrassment riddled her with her reaction, so much so that she immediately ushered everyone into the waiting room.

April Aguilera sings during her performance of

Aguilera felt like she had done something wrong and let everyone down, especially her eldest daughter.

“I was devastated, to say the least, because I had no experience with people with Down syndrome to reflect on,” Aguilera said. “We have a lot of things like internalized ableism and things that we’re not aware of because of society, and my heart was broken.

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“If I had known then, what I know now – that’s what we all say, right? It would have been a…party because my life with that little girl was never one magical experience after another. It can be difficult and harsh at times, but her disability is part of our daily lives. … It really opened my eyes to the full gamut of human experience.

A love letter to Paloma

The musical encompasses all of those feelings, but it’s only part of a tribute Aguilera wrote a decade later as a love letter to his daughter. The musical made its New York debut at the Emerging Artists Theater in 2019 and premiered as a one-night-only event on January 22 at the Savannah Theater.

Audience members stand during April Aguilera's performance of

Proceeds from January’s event went toward post-production of the short film “For Paloma,” which aims to show audiences a humanized, realistic portrayal of a side of motherhood that isn’t often seen.

The film and play are written and produced by Aguilera, who recently completed her Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting at Savannah College of Art and Design. The two follow Aguilera as she travels back in time to the birth of her daughter in pursuit of a makeover.

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For a decade, Aguilera didn’t touch a guitar and barely listen to music because she was heartbroken. One day she got a glimpse of what a play and film about the experience would like, the latter a wild thought considering the fact that Aguilera had never studied film or had never imagined being a filmmaker.

When the ideas took hold and she started talking about Paloma’s birth, she burst into tears. It was the first time she allowed herself to speak during her birth. And that vulnerability continued as Aguilera performed her one-woman musical.

April Aguilera sings during her performance of

“It’s hard to get on stage and say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hold you. I didn’t want to touch you.

“As someone who uses music and writing to process the things that have happened to me, I feel like I’m blessed to be able to communicate that in a way that someone else can s ‘connect to it in that audience. … I think that’s what he’s playing, right? We’re telling a story and we can kind of put our hands up and say, ‘Hey, me too.’

Representation in front of and behind the camera

“For Paloma” stars 12-year-old actress and Down Syndrome advocate Sofia Sanchez as Paloma, a dream come true for Aguilera as she had long imagined the actress in the role.

Actresses Nora Lynn, Ivy Filcik, and Annie Smith also play Paloma at different stages of her life. Aurelia Riley, the actress, producer, and Aguilera’s best friend in college from Iron Man 3 and “The Unbroken”, stars as the mother; and “Studio City” actor Phillip Bruenn stars as the father.

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Suraj Savkoor, who has written, produced and directed several short films, is the director and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Bob O’Reilly is the cinematographer.

It was important to Aguilera to hire actresses with disabilities for the appropriate roles, and this also translated behind the camera. Two out of three of his consulting producers were disabled as well as his casting director. Women also outnumbered men 3-1.

April Aguilera during her performance of

“People kept coming up to us on set and saying, ‘I’ve never worked on such a diverse set. I’ve never worked on such a beautiful set. I’ve never worked on a set with so many women. And looking around and seeing that we had many women of color. We had people with disabilities.

“Just looking around, we didn’t do anything on purpose. … It was just who our circle was. It’s just who we had to get together to make this movie, and it just happened so easily. felt like it had to be, I feel like we have to talk and look around to see who’s not in the room, find out why they’re not in the room, and make sure they are in the room.

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Aguilera said the community support has been amazing. In October, they funded over $15,000 to pay for the professional cast and crew members who traveled from Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Florida for the four-day shoot in Savannah.

When she was five, Paloma regressed and lost the ability to speak and read, but Aguilera believes her daughter can grasp the impact her story has had on the people around her.

April Aguilera during her performance of

“I hope maybe if another mother has an unexpected diagnosis of Down syndrome or even a prenatal diagnosis, but she saw the movie, or she saw the play or she saw something positive there …she’s not that scared, and she’s not that heartbroken because she sees how good life is going to be for her, so I think everything we did would have been worth it .

“For Paloma” will hit the 2022 film festival circuit later this year. For more information and a behind-the-scenes video, visit forpaloma.com.

Laura Nwogu is a quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at lnwogu@gannett.com. Twitter: @lauranwogu_