Hundreds of stories
There’s this line in Hamlet where Hamlet advises one of the players on how to act properly, cautioning him of the gravitas of theatre upon its audience. Hamlet describes theatre as a mirror in which the audience is able to see its own vices and virtues; a mirror that reflects “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
I wonder what Shakespeare would think of modern theatre if he were still alive today.
In the Heights is a show that’s always been very dear to my heart. I’m not much of a musical theatre junkie despite having been heavily involved in musical theatre all throughout high school, but I still like to keep tabs on the theatre scene — even now, especially in light of how theatre has diversified in recent years. Granted, there will always be something about Broadway that has that classic Broadway camp to it — but like every other artistic medium, musical theatre is subject to the evolving interests of a mass audience. Hence, the rock musical.
In all seriousness, the way in which musical theatre is evolving to reflect changes in society and culture today is equally, if not more striking. This is particularly true when one considers that the medium of musical theatre is one that has long catered to (and, by some measure, still caters to) a limited demographic that is, for the most part, white and wealthy. It amazes me that there now are musicals that tell the stories of marginalized peoples, and it amazes me even more that these musicals are widely accepted and celebrated by the typical theatre-going crowd of white, upper-class people ages fifty-five and older. This might seem insignificant, but the stories in these musicals are stories that remain unsung in mainstream Western society, stories of people and experiences considered invisible or irrelevant in Western media and entertainment — and the fact that these stories are being told on a grand Broadway stage is incredible in itself.
In the Heights won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography, and Best Original Score in 2008 and was nominated for nine other Tonys in the same year. The fact that a musical like In the Heights could be so well-received by an audience demographic that typically doesn’t seem to pay much regard to the stories of immigrants and people of color gives me hope. Sure, the show’s immense popularity might be because of the flashy dances or the hip music or the sharp dialogue rather than its incredibly nuanced portrayal of the immigrant struggle. But it gives me hope.
My former high school performed In the Heights this spring. When news of this year’s musical came about, I was one part skeptical and two parts anxious: skeptical that our theatre program — a program that I had graduated from — would be able to pull off a production of this scale and scope (as is the concern of any overzealous alum with chronically and unrealistically high expectations), but far more anxious about whether or not this story that I cherished so much would be told in the right way. Admittedly, this anxiousness was partly rooted in feelings of distrust and slight contempt for my former high school. Growing up as one of the few people of color amongst an overwhelmingly white majority, being the only one amongst all of my friends who could even understand what it meant to have immigrant parents, to be caught between two cultures and to tangle with a sense of self that was in constant disarray — these were essential parts of my identity that were erased, ignored, or mocked throughout my formative years in high school. Many of my experiences growing up in my suburban Connecticut hometown were marked by memories of being bullied and ridiculed because of my race, so please pardon my doubt in believing that my high school could do a good enough job of telling this story that I thought they would never be able to understand — a story that tackles virtually every aspect of the modern immigrant experience in the rawest and truest and most beautiful fashion imaginable; a story that parallels the actual, lived-in experiences of my family and other immigrant families like mine.
Most alumni return to watch the musical for a variety of reasons. Some come to offer support to their juniors, watching fondly from the audience and wondering how the shy little freshman from just three years ago could have turned into the showstopping lead in such a short period of time. Others come to live vicariously through their successors, silently keeping a catalog of criticisms for the young actors on stage while secretly wishing themselves back to those years when standing on that stage was something that could still be taken for granted. Still others come as creatures of habit, unable to shake the kneejerk-esque feeling that March means spring musical — not unlike how October means Halloween or July means Independence Day.
I watched the musical twice. If you asked me up front why I watched the same show two nights in a row, I would tell you that I watched one night with my parents, and the other with my little brother. But if I were to be truthful about it, I would tell you instead that I watched one night feeling completely breathless and overwhelmed for the entirety of the two-hour show, and the other in the hopes that I would be collected enough to write this essay thereafter.
I’m not usually a crier when it comes to watching movies or plays. I’ve only teared up watching two shows; the first was Next To Normal (a show that’s also very special to me for a variety of other reasons), and the second was this high school production of In the Heights. I initially fell in love with In the Heights through just listening to the soundtrack, but seeing the entire show play out on a stage gave it a certain dimensionality and life — a realness that knocked the wind out of me over and over again; characters that were relatable not just through the words they spoke and the emotions they wore on their faces, but by virtue of the fact that their lives mirrored my own.
Usnavi — who yearns unceasingly for a home he’s never seen, a home he only knows by feeling the blood from his parents pulse through his veins. By the end of the show, he realizes that his home was not the land of his parents but the land under his feet; that the community around him was his family, and that most importantly, he was duty-bound to live out the sacrifices made by his parents and to carry on the legacy of his people. I wonder when the day will come when I can finally call this nation my home; when I can no longer feel like a foreigner in my own country. I wonder when I’ll be brave enough to proudly say that, like Usnavi, I am carrying on my own family’s legacy in this new land, to tell the stories of my own people and weave them into the fabric of this country.
Nina — who goes to college and realizes that the ivory tower sits in a place loftier than the clouds; who comes home feeling as if she’s failed everyone who’s ever believed in her. There’s this part where she sings about wondering what would have happened if her parents had never left their home country, if she had lived her entire life amongst “her people” — a people who shared her culture, her language, who would never, ever see her as a foreigner or an outsider. She recounts her attempts to reclaim her culture while at school by learning Spanish and working her way to the top in order to make her parents’ sacrifice worthwhile, only to return home knowing that she’s disappointed everyone.
This is the line that makes my heart ache the most.
Benny — who tries his hardest to fit into and be accepted by a family and culture who sees him as a threat to the stability of their own American dream. Benny’s role isn’t meant to emphasize the “racism” of ethnic families in their unwillingness to accept an “outsider” as much as it is to draw attention to the importance placed on preserving one’s identity and culture, keeping the sand from slipping in between your fingers as you transplant your life and your family from one place to another, hoping that everything will stay the same after the move and praying that nothing will be lost on the way.
Kevin — who sacrifices everything for his family not just out of paternal instinct, but out of a survival instinct that never really wears off even after you’ve already made a life for yourself in a new country. He harvests his dreams from a humble childhood and a legacy that expected nothing more of him than working in the same sugar cane fields as his father and his grandfather. He starts a new life in the United States running a business of his own that, while modest, holds all the promises of a successful, respectable life. He places the burden of raising his family squarely on his own shoulders and never asks for help. He pours everything he has into his daughter and asks for nothing in return.
I sat next to my father during the show and tried my best to make sure that he wouldn’t see me crying.
Piragua Guy — a seemingly inconsequential character that, in actuality, illustrates the entire concept of survival throughout the play. He symbolizes traditional Latin-American culture, an attempt to bring over little pieces of the homeland in the hopes that they will stay intact, while knowing that survival doesn’t just mean “making it over in one piece,” but also constantly fighting against the present dominant powers that are determined to step on your dreams, ambitions, and attempts at surviving.
Sonny — who is the activist voice in the community. He speaks frankly about the systematic oppression against immigrants and people of color and more importantly, he speaks directly to the audience. Sonny has some of the most powerful, honest, and raw lines in the whole show:
Yo, with 96,000, I’d finally fix housing
Give the barrio computers and wireless web browsing
Your kids are living without a good edumacation change the station
Teach them about gentrification
The rent is escalating
The rich are penetrating
We pay our corporations when we should be demonstrating
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant
I’ll cash my ticket and picket
Invest in protest
Never lose my focus till the city takes notice
And you know this, man!
I’ll never sleep because the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep
Sonny’s position as a supporting character and as the “little cousin” is also crucial, as it illustrates the way in which activists are often overlooked and mocked even within their own communities and are oftentimes left to fight on their own.
The community also sings the hook line “We are powerless” throughout the show — a reference to the literal power outage that strikes the neighborhood for the bulk of the show, but is also an obvious nod to the vulnerability of the immigrant community and of people of color throughout Western societies. The line is particularly potent in a scene where Usnavi and Sonny’s bodega get robbed by thugs during the power outage, right after a lively scene meant to illustrate the vivacity and fortitude of the community. It demonstrates the ways in which people of color are systematically oppressed, despite the fact that many immigrant communities and people of color live comfortably and are not necessarily impoverished. It shows how vulnerable we as people of color continue to be within a society that continues to oppress without apology, and that our vulnerability is at the complete mercy of external powers outside of our control.
With four Tony awards to its name, I wonder how many people were paying attention to what this show is actually trying to say.
After watching two performances of this production of In the Heights, there’s no doubt in my mind that the cast was able to present a show that was dynamic, powerful, and moving on many levels. There’s a line in the Letter from the Director in the playbill that talks about how the cast drew inspiration from the stories of their own immigrant ancestors from generations ago, all of whom had endured some measure of difficulty in making a life of their own in a new country.
On the one hand, I’m really happy to see that there was a concerted effort in ensuring that the cast fully grasped the heart and soul of this show and did so in a way that was as real for them as it could have been. Nevertheless, it bothered me that this whole idea of “understanding the immigrant experience” was portrayed as something so distant and foreign and unfamiliar, that the cast (and by relation, the audience) would need to step so far outside of their present realities in order to even begin to understand the experiences of the characters on stage.
The stories and the experiences illustrated through the characters of In the Heights are so, so real — not just to people in history books or family trees tracing back centuries, but to to people living in the United States right now. More importantly, they are real to people who live in this town, who go to this school, who are sitting in the audience. Our experiences are often overlooked and silenced; the struggles and joys that shine brightly through song and dance on that stage are more often seen taking place in muted living rooms and conversations in foreign tongues that no one else would care about otherwise. But they are there, and they matter.
In the Heights is much, much more than a musical with a heartwarming story punctuated by song and dance. It’s a voice that proclaims that we exist and that our experiences matter. It’s a mouthpiece for us, for people like me, for families like mine. Thank you for telling our story.