Monthly Archives: September 2016

Thoughts on Theatre Under The Stars’ IN THE HEIGHTS

After I saw In the Heights on Broadway in 2008, I left the Richard Rodgers, went to my hotel room, and immediately tried to break dance. Hilarity ensued. Graffiti Pete I was not. Fast forward 8 years to Theatre Under The Stars’ (TUTS) production of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ hit musical, and I am still trying to move like the fictional residents of Washington Heights.

Dear reader, I have never and likely will never be able to break dance, pop-n-lock, or anything in between. No amount of In the Heights will fix that. But that doesn’t change my relationship with the show. As a musical theatre-phile and Spanish-speaker, seeing the show in 2008 was the first time that I felt these two worlds collide. Even though I am not Latino and don’t necessarily relate to the characters in the show, I felt represented in some odd way.  And, as a Latin@ theatre scholar, I’m invested in the skyrocketing careers of both Miranda and Hudes, two of only three Latin@ playwrights to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other is Nilo Cruz).

In many ways, I feel like In the Heights always keeps coming back to me. And then one night you are scrolling through your Facebook news feed and there is In the Heights embroiled in controversy over the casting and hiring of artistic staff at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre. Enraged, I checked my facts, and wrote a blog, thinking that no one would read it (See: “Casting an ‘Authentic’ In the Heights”). The next day it quickly went viral (well, viral for trevorboffone.com). All of a sudden, people were citing me and interviewing me about my thoughts on race, ethnicity, and casting in the show. Soon thereafter, I started writing an article about race, ethnicity, power, whitewashing, and representation in post-Hamilton productions of the show to submit to a peer-reviewed academic journal. And all the while, I was keeping my eyes on TUTS’ 2016-17 season opening performance of the show.

While I won’t formally review the show here and will save my detailed thoughts for later, I do want to take some time to address several thoughts about TUTS’ production of In the Heights.

Usnavi is everything—When Usnavi makes his entrance at the top of the show, he introduces the audience to the familia to which we are about to bear witness. He is the show’s narrator and, therefore, we enter the community through him. Given this, the actor must be able to carry the show, not in the same way as Mamma Rose or Tevye, but Usnavi must make the audience fall for him. We need to not only want to visit his bodega, but we need to feel like we already frequent it and take our coffee light and sweet. This is to say that casting this character is pivotal to a successful production that speaks with the Latin@ community. As such, Usnavi is a beloved musical theatre character and one of the few Latin@ characters to lead a Broadway musical. TUTS made a great choice in casting Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Medina’s tweet below just shows how much this role means to him and the Latin@ community. Not to mention it reiterates the importance of casting this role with a Latino actor. How often do Latin@s get to play dream roles that are roles specifically written for them?

Stepping into a role so closely associated with Lin-Manuel Miranda surely must have been daunting, but Medina delivers as the man in the Kangol hat. Medina is charismatic, funny, and engaging. In addition to being a first-class actor, he raps with ease and dances like a drunk Chita Rivera. Medina is ready for the spotlight and there is no reason he shouldn’t play Curly, Pippin, or Bobby (give him a few years!).

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Jonathan Arana as Piragua Guy & Anthony Lee Medina as Usnavi. Photo by Os Galindo

Sheldon Epps—Last week, I told The Houston Chronicle’s Theatre Critic Wei-Huan Chen that Sheldon Epps leadership as Artistic Advisor at TUTS was a big move in a city whose major arts organizations are so heavily run by Anglos. Given the fact that Houston is the nation’s most racially diverse city, a black person in such a high leadership position shouldn’t be surprising nor should we consider it a “big move,” but here, in 2016, it is. That Epps came in and replaced Shrek, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Grease with In the Heights, Into the Woods, and Dreamgirls just demonstrates that he is looking to center TUTS as one of the leading producers of musical theatre in the country and produce work that speaks to Houston in 2016. While In the Heights and Dreamgirls offer a rare opportunity for local audiences to see people of color on a major stage (How many times have you seen two dozen people of color on stage at the Hobby Center?), Into the Woods also offers the opportunity to cast people of color in leading roles. Why not a black Baker? Or a Latina Baker’s Wife? An Indian-American Jack? Simple casting choices could potentially have a significant ripple effect in Houston. Just look at the new layers that The Catastrophic Theatre added to their 2016 production of Buried Child by casting a black woman as Shelly. To put it simply, it was a revelation and shed new light on a show that has been around for almost 40 years. We need more of this work and TUTS can be be a leader in providing access for actors of color in Houston.

Hopefully, programming diversity on stage will bring more diverse crowds into the Hobby Center. However, if TUTS really wants to build audiences and draw new people to the theatre, then it absolutely must address the high cost of tickets. The cheapest seats for In the Heights are $46.50 including fees, not to mention parking which is $12 in the Hobby Center garage. Why not offer discounted tickets for veterans and people under 35, rush seats, etc? TUTS does have a Student & Senior Rush Policy (Student and Senior (65+) rush is available starting one hour before curtain with valid id. Tickets are 50% off in price levels 2-5). However, this information is not easily accessible on their website, leading many to believe that they don’t offer such discounts. I recognize that with touring shows discounted tickets might not be possible, but for TUTS-produced shows such as In the Heights, discounted tickets have the potential to be a game changer. In the Heights should not be a luxury. People should not be turned off from seeing this important show based on ticket prices alone.

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

The Cast of In The Heights. Photo by Os Galindo

Artist Profile: Sarah Rafael García

Name: Sarah Rafael Garcíasarah-rafael-garcia

Hometown: Born in Brownsville, Texas and raised in Santa Ana, California, I claim both.

Residence: Austin, Texas and Santa Ana, California: one a residence with my life partner as he completes his PhD at UT at Austin and currently an artist in residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

What is your earliest memory of writing?

I started writing after the unexpected death of my father in 1988, I was thirteen. A bereavement social worker, at the hospital where my father passed away, handed me my first journal and advice to use writing as a source of consolation.

How did you become a writer?

In 2004, I ran away from Corporate America and the “American Dream” to live in Beijing as an English teacher and write my first book for 18 months. At the time, I was stressed and disillusioned about many expectations in my life—becoming financially successful, getting married, having children and supporting my sisters and mother. I have been writing since 1988 but never shared my work with anyone outside of my immediate family. I was waiting to retire (with tons a money) and spend beach vacations writing my childhood stories. Yeah I know, not realistic, but since I didn’t grow up with any mentors or support to be a writer that’s all I could imagine for myself, since I had to have a “real” career.

Tell us about your writing process.

I started writing by journaling, with the occasional poem sneaking onto the page. Then I moved on to writing memories, which led me to deconstruct my identity as a first generation college student, Chicana and woman of color—who never married nor has children. But of course that came after I completed a degree in Sociology. After my first book was published in 2008, I recognized I needed to learn more and wanted to offer more to my community. In 2009, I founded Barrio Writers. By leading writing workshops for youth, I broadened my writing interests as well as my style. I began to use more code-switching, experimental format as well as spoken word. Then in 2012, Barrio Writers led me to seek a M.F.A in Creative Writing. I had not written fiction until I submitted a writing sample for M.F.A. applications. Now, I write a lot of hybrid stories—a cross between fiction and non-fiction, contemporary narratives of women and my community. I select a gender role imposed on women or cultural community issue and find a way to tell a story through fiction—sometimes it’s like an ethnographic description, other times it transforms into a parallel world through the lens of magical realism. As far as the process, once I’ve done research into the theme and written 2-3 pages into a story, I become a weaver. I write, go back to the beginning and edit, write 2-4 more pages, maybe do some more research (read literature, look up relevant stuff), go back to the beginning and edit, and the cycle continues until I get to the ending. It’s a love-hate relationship, I love how it all turns out in the end, but some days I lose my patience with editing from the beginning over and over again. I’ve learned to see it as weaving—something that needs to be done to hold it all together, to create details at a micro level but eventually create a pattern only visible at a macro level. I would have laughed aloud and walked back into my 10×10 corporate America cubicle if I was told this had to be my writing process back in 2004. But here I am…

What are you working on now?  

I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.

As part of my artist in residence, I’m working on a special project from March 2016-2017. SanTana’s Fairy Tales is an oral history, storytelling project, which integrates community-based narratives to create contemporary fairy tales and fables that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales).

The forthcoming exhibit at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California will present a multi-media installation, curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase bilingual, single-story zines, a fully illustrated published book, an ebook, a large format classical book, graphic art by Sol Art Radio‘s Carla Zarate, an “open book” performance, along with composed music by Viento Callejero‘s Gloria Estrada, who is supported by local singer/songwriter Ruby Castellanos and members of the Pacific Symphony. The entire collection will be translated by poet Julieta Corpus and published by Raspa Press. The ebook will be produced by Digitus Indie Publishers.

SanTana’s Fairy Tales is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. The exhibit is scheduled for March 2017.

Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I returned to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using multi-media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, and I’m not a big fan of folks who say it doesn’t exist. I think it does for some of us. There are many complex situations in life that keep some of us from creating. Although I recognize I’m in a privileged position as an artist in residence, my journey and sacrifices are not so easily forgotten, nor is my cost of living. Sometimes I can’t write because I’m trying to budget my money for next month and also my time to do community work. Other times, I’m busy chasing deadlines and I forget that I haven’t seen or spoken to my loved ones in weeks. Then there are those days that I question everything, I question if I’d be happier if I didn’t have to worry how I was going to pay bills next month or where I’m going to live next year. I question if I should go back to a “real” job and get rid of some of these tedious tasks of choosing between healthy food verses cheap food or a new pair of comfortable shoes, since I walk and commute via bike because it’s cheaper than maintaining a car. I question if having no health insurance is actually sane or humane. I question if I’m “academic” enough to land a job as an adjunct professor (even though the pay sucks), because I haven’t yet and I’m 42 years old. Then I’m told I don’t have enough experience on a campus, but folks admire that I’ve maintained Barrio Writers for the last eight years with little to no budget on various campuses in Texas and Southern California. So yes, in these moments I can’t write, all of such thoughts block my process—and they come often. Some days I have to convince myself to just breathe rather than write.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

I can’t say I have a go-to list of writers, because I’m a big fan of contemporary writers. So those who influence me change on a daily bases—most recently I’ve been enjoying poetry by Macondista Ching-In Chen and Juan Felipe Herrera’s latest collection. For fiction, I‘m currently dissecting Emma Donoghue and Etgar Keret. If I have to resort to those who made me feel like I wanted be like them or just escape this world by flipping a few pages, it all started with Judy Blume and Louisa May Alcott. Then as for the maestra/os, I admire Gabo, Allende, Esquivel, and Castillo. For descriptions, wit and male narratives, I bury my nose in works by Joe Jimenez, Junot Diaz, and Dagoberto Gilb. But at my bedside I have Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leslie Marmon Silko and Toni Morrison—and tomorrow I will add more to each section.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Top 5 List + 1:

  1. All by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo)
  2. Aphrodite by Isabel Allende
  3. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
  5. Flesh to Bone by ire’ne lara silva

Plus 1, the latest read: The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth (as well as new older writers of color) to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell all writers to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind all writers to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.

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