When Alyah Chanelle Scott, ’19, read the script for “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” her immediate thought was “No, my dad will kill me.”
Then she read the pilot for that series and felt an immediate connection to the character she’d play. So, two years after graduating from U-M, Scott was back in school—a first-year student at the fictional Essex College in Vermont—as one of the leads in the HBO Max series.
“Sex Lives,” which began airing in November 2021 and was renewed the following month for a second season, explores the experiences of four roommates. Scott plays Whitney, one of the few African American students at Essex. The daughter of a U.S. senator and a star soccer player, Whitney is engaged in a covert affair with her married coach—yes, the plot does include the girls’ sex lives.
Is Essex similar to U-M? Scott isn’t sure. “I went to theater parties,” not frat parties, she says. Her dance classes as a U-M musical theater student did prepare her to be convincing on the Essex soccer field, though. Never having played soccer, she wasn’t sure she was going to like it when she started training for the role. One aspect of the team sport that was new to her: “Sixteen girls running at me? Thank God there’s a stunt double!”
She says there is commonality with her fictional counterpart, though, explaining that Whitney’s experiences have helped her deal with her own. “Going through a character’s journey is kind of therapy,” she says.
Born in 1997 in Houston, Scott was attracted to theater early on. “I love to entertain and was getting into trouble in every class, trying to make people laugh,” she says. She also loves to sing and was in choir for many years.
When she had an opportunity to get on stage, she was a cheerleader, which conflicted with theater. “It was hard juggling two identities,” she says. “So I quit cheering and became a theater kid.” Scott went on to excel as Belle, the lead in her high school production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
When she told her parents she wanted to be an actor, they weren’t enthusiastic. “They didn’t have much growing up and worked twice as hard to get half as much. My mom is an engineer, and my dad is in finance, and they wanted me to get a job that was stable. They knew I was capable but didn’t anticipate the world would be kind and opportunities would be there for someone like me.”
Still, Scott made plans to audition for musical theater departments. Every year, a group of schools holds auditions together so prospective students can apply on two coasts and in between without multiple flights. “I was going to go to the Unified Auditions in Chicago in 2015,” Scott recalls, “and there was a blizzard. All the flights were canceled.” She wasn’t able to get there (and her parents weren’t going to send her to every school), so she picked the one school she wanted most and headed for Ann Arbor to audition.
At U-M, Scott felt intimidated. “I always went to public school,” she says. “Other people went to private arts schools and had coaches. I had never done ballet.” Suddenly, surrounded by other talents in the top-tier student group, she wondered if she belonged.
“I felt maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I don’t deserve that. Fortunately, I had some special people who made me think anything was possible.” One was Professor Linda Goodrich, a director/choreographer. “Linda said ‘You’re meant to do this; just push yourself. If you give up, you’ll always regret it.’” Scott knew Goodrich had seen many people succeed, and if Goodrich saw the same thing in her, “I knew I better figure it out. It came out of sheer will and wonder and curiosity,” Scott recalls.
Scott says she learned in classes and by watching her peers in practice rooms. She learned every technique she would need—and more. She says Goodrich taught her to “trust what makes you unique instead of conforming to what something should be.”
“Alyah is a baker,” says Goodrich, and she isn’t only talking about how Scott baked cakes for everyone’s birthdays. “She approaches roles methodically, in a studious, measured way. Then, all of a sudden, the hair comes down, the glasses come off, and there is a glorious cake. She is this extraordinary charismatic person who carefully does the work and doesn’t show anything too soon.”
Tony-winner Gavin Creel, ’98, who was developing a project at U-M when Scott was a sophomore, immediately wanted to work with her. When they started, he says, “she had trepidation and fear of walking across the room in a certain way. She was a shy girl in an oversized sweatshirt. By the end, she was doing a solo in gold hot pants and a black sports bra, with an attitude, singing a song about polyamory.”
She has called Creel since to ask him about decisions she’s considering. “She’s open to listening and trying. She’s honest and authentic and real. That’s what makes her a star.”
By the time she left U-M, Scott says she “took for granted the safety of a community of young artists, all trying to figure it out. It was at a good place to learn and fail. Failure is an inevitable part of an artist, but out in the world, it’s much scarier.”
And she found herself out in the professional world at once.
Each year, the U-M Department of Musical Theatre produces the “Senior Showcase,” a revue exhibiting the triple talents of the actors/singers/dancers about to graduate. It previews in Ann Arbor for family, friends, students, faculty, and local residents. Then students perform again in New York City for agents and casting directors.
When Scott was in New York for the showcase, she appeared in a concert Creel was doing at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. Creel had invited one of the producers of “The Book of Mormon,” for which he had won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The producer noticed Scott.
And right out of college, she had a principal role in the touring company of “The Book of Mormon.” “It initially felt like this huge win,” she reflects, adding that she developed misgivings about the role. She felt her character was “insulting rather than funny because she continuously served as the butt of jokes set up by white men.”
The tour left New York in June 2019 and stopped abruptly in Los Angeles in March 2020. Scott hadn’t planned to do film or TV anytime soon, but, “I started having that dream and got the audition.” She made a tape with her boyfriend and had a series of Zoom callbacks for “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” co-created by Mindy Kaling of “The Office,” “The Mindy Project,” and other hit shows.
“It was surreal to see Mindy Kaling in a little box in the corner. I never saw anyone in person, and I didn’t believe it was really going to happen until I walked onto the Warner Bros. lot.”
Starting work on a TV series was something like starting school at U-M. “It wasn’t something I knew the ins and outs about. I felt like everyone spoke in code. But I did know how to do Whitney.”
Now, she knows the language of the television industry. She’s even learning to write and direct for TV. But for now, she’s happy going into the second season of a series she loves. “I could do this every day of my life.”
Davi Napoleon, ’66, MA’68, is a freelance writer and theater historian.