Matthew Reddin

Black, White and Brown

The musical In the Heights and Mamet’s Race offer gritty and very different takes on racial identity.

By - Jan 29th, 2014 11:34 am


The Skylight Music Theatre’s traveled a lot of fascinating places in its 2013-14 season already – India a la Bollywood, 19th-century France, revolutionary Cuba – but its most colorful destination may still be ahead: modern-day Washington Heights, a Latino-dominated neighborhood in Manhattan.

That’s the setting of In the Heights, the Skylight’s next musical, directed by Ragnar Conde. Himself a visitor in this country (a native of Mexico and the director of Mexico City’s Escenia Ensemble), Conde says he is perfectly suited to tell this story of immigrants trying to achieve their dreams. “I travel a lot, so I am always away from home,” Conde says. “I’m always like a foreigner everywhere that I’m going – not only here in the United States, but also in Europe and South America. So that’s the same feeling.”

Almost. The characters of In the Heights are immersed in their neighborhood, and their stories are woven together tightly. The central storyteller is Usnavi, the owner of the neighborhood’s central bodega. He harbors a secret crush on the beautiful Vanessa, and watches out for neighborhood matriarch, Abuela Claudia, an elderly woman who helped raise him and many others who live on the block. Parallel to this, a young woman named Nina returns home from Stanford University, having secretly dropped out, and grapples with her parents’ expectations and her growing feelings for Benny, a black employee of her father’s taxi company trying to earn recognition despite not being part of the Latino community. And on top of all that, we quickly learn one of these residents has purchased a life-changing lottery ticket.

It’s an ambitious series of tales, almost as ambitious as its characters. “Something that I like about In the Heights is that all the characters are searching for their own goals,” Conde says. “It doesn’t matter how difficult they might be, they are just so focused on them and straightforward in getting them.” It’s a trait he says is true to the Latino culture he’s experienced in the U.S.

Also true to life: the musical’s score, composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are no traditional show tunes here. Instead, the music evokes a place like Washington Heights with a multicultural mix of salsa, rap and hip hop. It’s a catchy, impressive score, especially, Conde says, taking into account that it even includes regional styles synced up to individual character’s ethnic heritage (i.e., Usnavi’s songs sound Dominican, Abuela Claudia’s sound Cuban, etc.).

It’s a musical Conde says can appeal to a mass audience, especially the characters’ family dynamics. “All the characters are trying to get farther than their parents did, in order to honor them,” he says. But for the Latino community it portrays in miniature and the actors it empowers, In the Heights can be something more. “We talked in the very first rehearsal about how important this play was for each one of us. And most of the cast were already crying in the first rehearsal because they said, ‘It’s so hard to be successful here, and to have recognition.’ When they figured out that there was a complete musical about Latino culture, and they’re not going to be just ensemble but they could play a main role, that was really, really amazing for them.”

But no matter what language you speak or culture you belong to, Conde says In the Heights can hit you hard. “I’m trying to find the right way to say it in English … it’s una carecia para el corazón – like a caress for your heart.”

In the Heights opens Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 23 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. Performances are 7:30 p.m. nights and 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65.50 and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or their online box office.

Race by David Mamet

Race by David Mamet

David Mamet has a reputation. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, it gives audiences an expectation of what they’ll find at a Mamet play: sharp, crackling, sparse dialogue, a blunt exploration of the script’s subject matter and, quite often, an unflinching use profanity that shocked audiences of his initial plays. On the other hand, the fact that it’s a Mamet’s play can lead to an emphasis on him and his reputation over the play itself.

So let’s stop talking about Mamet and start talking about Race, Next Act’s provocative drama about race relations set in the offices of a small law firm whose members are  trying to decide whether to take on a complex sexual assault case. With only four characters – two partners, one white and one black, a new black female lawyer, and the white defendant seeking their representation – the show quickly becomes a tense, intimate beast of a play, exactly what Next Act tends to be best at. But the most interesting thing about Race is in its character’s beliefs about both race and the legal system – none of which are exactly what you might expect.

Race, directed by Edward Morgan, runs from Jan. 31 to Feb. 23 at Next Act Theatre. Performances are 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays; tickets range from $25 to $35. Order at (414) 278-0765 or visit the online box office.

PREVIEW: Evita at the Marcus Center

While Evita was a major success for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on Broadway in 1979, the musical hadn’t been seen there since, until its revival in 2012, a production (based on the West End revival from 6 years earlier) starring Argentinian actress Elena Roger and former Latin pop singer Ricky Martin hit the stage of the Marquis Theatre. Between the Marquis and the Marcus, the show was repackaged into a national touring production, which visits Milwaukee for this week only. It’s a faithful reconstruction of the original, the rags-to-riches tale of Eva Perón, a child of the streets who became a famous actress, First Lady of Argentina and eventually the “spiritual leader” of the nation before her untimely death.

Evita will be performed eight times between Feb. 4 and 9; tickets range from $30 to $89. For more information or to order, visit the Marcus Center’s website or call (414) 273-7206.


Milwaukee Rep: Woody Sez, Stackner Cabaret; End of the Rainbow, Quadracci Powerhouse

Fireside Theatre: Solid Gold ‘60s

First Stage: A Midnight Cry, Todd Wehr Theatre; The Cat in the Hat, Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

Renaissance Theaterworks: The Understudy

Soulstice Theater Company: God

0 thoughts on “Theater: Black, White and Brown”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This line in your review, “But the most interesting thing about Race is in its character’s beliefs about both race and the legal system – none of which are exactly what you might expect” has made me want to see Mamet’s Race as put on by Next Act Theater!

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