Two in the afternoon at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, people entered the room, following the ushers as they led them to their respective seats. The room’s walls were lined with cutouts making the New York City skyline against a dark backdrop while the speakers overflowed with salsa, reggaeton, rap, and bolero.
“Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day.” This was Ernie Prumeda’s opening line as Usnavi De La Vega as the stage at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre lit up. His bodega was being covered with graffiti as Erick Ariel Sureda sprayed his art unto the walls.
Prumeda welcomed the audience into their barrio in New York with ease and charm. His fridge had broken down, driving the milk to spoil, further urging his fire of leaving to the Dominican Republic, his native land. Prumeda’s interpretation as Usnavi was inspiring and uplifting with every word he said and sang.
Then arrived his abuela, who wasn’t really his grandmother. Abuela Claudia played the matriarchal role in the Heights; her character was brought to life by the lovely Alina Alcántara. She shared with her family her mantra: paciencia y fé, patience and faith, and she raised her gratitude to God in alabanzas, which means to “raise this thing to God’s face, and to say quite literally: praise to this.”
The Rosarios, a family composed of Camila (Leesa Castaneda), Kevin (Juan Cantú), and their daughter Nina (Iliana Garcia), owned a cab company, which made them the wealthiest family in the Heights. Nina was the first in her family to make it out of the community, and the first to go to college. Her alma mater became Stanford, which she quit due to financial problems and culture shock.
She later became Benny’s (Deon’te Goodman) significant other. The audience was also introduced to Daniela (Vicky Campadonico), Carla (Kayla Alvarez), and Vanessa (Nina V. Negron) who worked as stylists at Daniela’s beauty salon. These characters maintained the dream of a better tomorrow: the American dream.
Daniela and Carla struggled with moving their salon to the Bronx while Vanessa strived to move downtown and make a life for herself away from her dysfunctional home. Sonny, Usnavi’s cousin played by Zach Infante, wished to make life better for the youth like him who lived in the barrio, he mentioned when the $96,000 lottery prize was announced. They were all endowed with great wit and hilarity.
Their lives took a drastic turn when the city was swallowed by a blackout during the 4th of July. Usnavi’s store gets ransacked, the heat spiked, and fear plagued the Heights. The sudden lack of American industrial elements gave the culture that had saturated in the Heights a chance to rise, a culture consisting of a combination of Hispanic traditions and kaleidoscopic qualities.
In the Heights was a brilliant reflection of what it meant to be Hispanic in Washington Heights and New York in general. It assessed the constant presence of heritage and how such heritage must be cherished, treasured, nurtured, and most importantly, shared. “Carnaval de Barrio” showcased unabashed Hispanic pride in its call to wave their respective flags.
“Piragua” portrayed the way Hispanic people had to find ways to combat the American industry in order to survive, and the troubles between Kevin Rosario and Benny gave insight into a rarely-seen side of racial prejudice against Hispanics in America. The soundtrack was the echo of congas, bongos, and trumpets, and the talented cast brought the stories to life in a wonderful way. The artists deserve a bottle of cold champagne.
Photo by Bianca Morales.