¡Teatro! spring show explores challenges in Latin-American community

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Photo by Ken Yanagisawa.

This Thursday night, Yale’s only Latin-American theater ensemble ¡Teatro! will perform a Tony Award-winning musical that explores the challenges Hispanic communities face in the United States as its annual mainstage production.

“In the Heights” by Quiara Alegría Hudes with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda is set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights and follows the struggles of several characters, including a shop-owner named Usnavi and a college student named Nina. “In the Heights” marks the return of the ¡Teatro! theater organization, which was established in 2008 but did not stage any productions in the 2012-’13 academic year because of there was no one to head the organization after its previous leader graduated.

It was revived by current president Gineiris Garcia ’16, the show’s director. Fernandez said he thinks that ¡Teatro! is an important part of campus culture because its productions highlight many relevant issues that the Latin-American community currently faces, including the feeling of a “disconnect” with people from higher socioeconomic classes that many Hispanic students from lower-income families experience. Harper-Malveaux said that the show’s setting and the culture it depicts are rarely ever seen in Yale theatre productions, adding that the ensemble has made an effort to depict the show’s setting and characters in a historically accurate manner in order to give audience members a realistic impression of the Latin-American community.

The show’s musical director Dan Rubins ’16 said that the musical is unusual in its use of music genres not often found in traditional musicals.

“I’d say this show has the most successful musical theatre score that bridges ‘musical theatre’ music with any other genre,” Rubins said.

Nailah Harper-Malveaux ’16, the show’s producer, explained that the production prominently features elements of rap and salsa music alongside more traditional ballads and melodies. Rubins said he has never directed in any of these genres before, adding that the production will include a live band consisting of nine instruments. He also noted that many of the salsa-inspired rhythms in the score are particularly difficult to master. Rubins said the show’s musical complexity and variety make it extremely challenging to perform, noting that this score is the most difficult piece he has ever directed. When he started talking about staging this show over a year ago, others told him it would not be possible to produce it at Yale, he said.

“I’d say this show has the most successful musical theatre score that bridges ‘musical theatre’ music with any other genre.”  -Dan Rubins ’16, musical director "In the Heights"

“I’d say this show has the most successful musical theatre score that bridges ‘musical theatre’ music with any other genre.”
-Dan Rubins ’16, musical director “In the Heights”

The musical is set in a predominantly Latin-American community in the middle of an economically difficult time. The story follows multiple plotline, such as the growing romantic relationship between the characters Nina and Benny as well as the shop-owner Usnavi’s attempts to keep his business afloat. James Lee ’16, who plays Usnavi’s cousin Sonny, said he believes the show’s most important theme is the concept of ‘home’ — what it is and what it means to each character. Fabi Fernandez ’15, who plays Usnavi, said that Hispanic immigrants often struggle to clearly define a single place as their ‘home’ after having been away from their native country for a long period of time.

“The meaning of home is a difficult concept for a lot of Latinos because on one hand, your ‘home’ is where your family is, like in Puerto Rico for example, but the United States is also your home,” Fernandez said.

Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, a member of the show’s musical ensemble, said he believes that while several of the themes presented in the show, such as being part of a financially struggling neighborhood, are situations that only a limited number of students at Yale have experienced firsthand. Yet many students on campus can relate to the idea of moving from one’s home to a foreign place, as that is what most college students have had to do, Zachariah explained. Harper-Malveaux added that she thinks audience members will also empathize with the character Nina, who has returned from a year at Stanford University where she struggled academically and lost much of her self-confidence. That feeling is something all students can relate to, Harper-Malveaux noted.

“In the Heights” will play at the Off Broadway Theater.

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