Hoof 'n' Horn always mixes up the genres of plays it performs, but its spring production may be more revolutionary than most: "In the Heights" takes an almost unprecedented look at Latinx and POC experiences for the theater company.
“It is not just about accurate representation. It is about loving representation,” said sophomore and director of “In the Heights,” Maria Zurita Ontiveros.
At the Rubenstein Arts Center through April 20, "In the Heights,” a Broadway musical written by the Lin-Manuel Miranda, perhaps most famous for writing "Hamilton," is a celebration of Latinx culture and community. It takes place in Washington Heights, New York City, a primarily Latinx neighborhood, weaving a narrative through the stories of its inhabitants through music, dance, and other cultural elements.
In the musical, Usnavi de la Vega, a bodega owner, wonders about where he belongs in the world after his parents’ death. He is guided by the community’s matriarch, Abuela Claudia, an immigrant filled with inherited dreams from her mother and longing for her own dreams to come true. Vanessa, Usnavi’s love interest, struggles with an abusive mother and her own unclear identity, wanting nothing more than to leave Washington Heights and see the world. Another character, Nina Rosario, grapples with finances and the expectations of her community as a first generation college student across the nation at Stanford University. And Benny, Nina’s love interest and her father’s employee, feels disconnected with the community he calls home, as the only non-Latinx/Hispanic character. The story deals with each individual’s personal battle against societal standards, abuse, and the identity development in a neighborhood often disregarded in media and popular culture as they attempt to define the American Dream for themselves.
For Ontiveros, this show meant more to her than just another theater production.
“The moment I heard this show, I was on a plane flying back to Mexico City after my first semester here at Duke," Ontiveros said. "And I was shocked at how profound the representation of Latinx characters was."
In American media, particularly in this political climate, Latinx communities are depicted with certain stereotypes, stereotypes that often ignore the kinds of stories that Lin-Manuel Miranda is trying to tell. The stigmatization of these groups simplifies them to elements of their identity and labels them with arbitrary ideas.
“There tends to be two narratives," Ontiveros said. "We’re either bad people, portrayed as drug dealers, or we’re victimized. This show is very powerful because it shows situations in which characters are powerless yet they take that power back without conforming to an identity.”
“In the Heights” uses traditional and modern Latinx cultural elements and music, from rap to salsa, in an effort to deconstruct stereotypes and stigmatization these groups often have faced. The characters have depth and development in ways that is not often done in the arts and popular culture.
“It is an important story to be told now and at Duke and to remind people that our culture is beautiful and diverse and strong and resilient," sophomore Isabel Giacomazzi, who plays Abuela Claudia, said. "And you have a lot of theater that does not tell this story."
Yet, the show was initially met with controversy with the crew members struggling over how it should be done. They wondered if they could find the right cast to perform it to do this musical justice. Ultimately, it was decided that, to truly promote the musical’s message and build a more integrated Latinx community on campus, they would perform it as intended: with an primarily Latinx and POC cast.
And when the show was cast, each member expressed why they joined the show and what it meant to them.
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As senior Arlene Arévalo, who plays Nina Rosario in the show, recalls, “That was so motivating to me. I would not have been able to meet so many people I identify with so closely. Minorities in this institution tend to be compartmentalized, but I never would have thought something like theater would have brought us together.”
“In the Heights” ultimately addresses the difficult question of what home looks like and the many definitions each individual can have, regardless of ethnic or racial identity. It is a story that can be universally felt.
“Even if you’re not Latinx, you can come and relate to the story of what does home mean for you," said Arévalo. "Is home a place? Is home people? Is home a dream or ambition?”
Tickets for the "In the Heights" are sold out, but those still wishing to attend can line up an hour before each performance for a chance to get a seat.