The South Bend Civic Theatre opens their production of In The Heights on Friday. They approached this musical differently then they have in the past in an effort to accurately portray the story and bring new people into the theatre.
In The Heights is a Tony Award winning musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind Hamilton. It tells the story of three eventful days in the life of a predominantly Latinx community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.
To put on this production a steering committee from the South Bend Civic worked for a year to make inroads and partnerships into the Latinx community to make sure the story was being represented properly.
“I said ‘If we’re going to do this, we have to do it right.’" said Executive Director Aaron Nichols. "I will not put a show up that, the term that’s being used right now is whitewashes a show, putting caucasian actors in roles that were intended for African American or Latino or Asian or whatever. We cannot do that. The world has moved on.”
They put out casting calls through staples in the local community, La Casa De Amistad, Radio Sabor Latino, and others. And people auditioned. The cast, crew, musicians and even ushers are putting a story about people like them on the stage.
“We want to do better. We want to reflect our whole community.”
Nichols said even if you’re not Latino, the story is universal.
“I hope that people will come in expecting to see slice of life and realize it’s a slice of their own life.”
The show is full of hip-hop, rap, salsa, and different types of spanish-style music. It’s high energy and personal.
The stage at the civic looks like a street corner with doorsteps, a fire escape, a salon, deli and crosswalk. It’s covered in graffiti and populated by a wealth of characters.
Starting with the main character Usnavi De La Vega, a first generation American of Dominican immigrant parents. He runs a grocery store. He’s played by Jorge Rivera-Herrans.
Usnavi pines after Vanessa who works at the salon, and gets advice from the shows grandmother figure, Abuela Claudia.
Abuela is played by Leah Isabel Tirado, who’s also the director of the show. She said she has someone she uses for character development…
Tirado is Puerto Rican and grew up in Wisconsin. She said before In The Heights, Latinos on the stage were only in West Side Story.
“I wasn’t allowed to watch that until I was 18 because my mom didn’t want me to hate my people. So when I first saw In The Heights I was like, oh my God this is my story and Puerto Ricans are not being portrayed as illiterate, or gang members, or drug dealers.”
Andrea De Leon plays salon owner Daniela. She said the barrio of In The Heights is facing the same problems as South Bend, and everywhere else.
“This show addresses some really powerful issues like gentrification and things like that and that’s something that South Bend is seeing and is facing.”
Tirado said for kids in the community the representation in the show is important.
“I want little Latina girls to see Latina women on that stage busting their buns and just putting on such a beautiful performance and inspire them to say ‘you know what? I wanna do a show at South Bend Civic.’”
Tirado said the work the Civic has done to make this a inclusive production is new to her. She works in professional theatre in Chicago. In 2016 a production of In The Heights in Chicago got into some hot water for whitewashing the cast.
“The Civic has made serious strides to make this production something groundbreaking for the theatre. They’ve put all of their heart and soul into it in a way that I haven’t seen before.”
Nichols said they’re already looking forward to the next season and some shows chosen to reach out to more communities within South Bend, including African Americans, and those with Autism.
“The word I keep coming back to is home and welcome, those ideas that we are creating a space where all are welcome and that divisiveness is left at the door.”
Many performances of In The Heights have already sold out. It will be at the civic until March 25th. An encore, one-night only performance with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra is also in the works for July.