“In La Villita” doesn’t ring quite as well as “In the Heights,” the opening number of its eponymous musical. Otherwise, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s story of Washington Heights, Manhattan could have been adapted into a musical about Chicago’s Southwest Side—and in a few small ways, it was. Bringing the piece to Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen for a concert performance on April 8, director Cecilie Keenan hoped it would resonate with a South Side audience, even as the lyrics described a city hundreds of miles away. Co-sponsored by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, the Chicago Community Trust, Latinos Progresando, and Benito Juarez, the community showcase entertained a sold-out house of students, families, and community supporters.
The piece, based on the book by Hudes with music and lyrics written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, follows Usnavi (Luis Crespo), who owns a small corner story in the Washington Heights barrio—though a projection behind the scene tells us his bodega may or may not be Chicago’s “La Favorita #2,” at 19th and May. In the background of one scene, a knotty tree in the shape of a V framed the top half of the Willis Tower, obstructed partially by a vibrant mural stretching the length of the projected photograph. With each scene, people murmured as they recognized corners from Pilsen and Little Village in the background.
The story emphasizes a neighborhood feel; everyone in this barrio knows each other. Vanessa (Laura A. Clark), Usnavi’s love interest, befriends Nina (Tatyana Gaona), who recently returned home after dropping out of Stanford; Benny (Edy A. Domínguez Quezadas) falls in love with Nina while working for her father’s taxi service; Carla (Alexis Pacheco) and Daniela (Marci Portugal) exchange gossip while cutting hair at their barber shop; Abuela Claudia (Elizabeth Gray), grandmother not only to Usnavi but for the neighborhood, observes and imparts advice of “Paciencia y Fé” upon them all.
Even though the piece asked each audience member to make the final leap themselves, the change in setting wasn’t contrived. “In the Heights” speaks of opportunity and love, and a few weighty topics not unfamiliar to residents of the Southwest Side—like “getting out” of the neighborhood, or the fine line between vandalism and street art. “En Nueva York, we can’t see beyond our streetlights,” Abuela Claudia laments in Act One.
Keenan hopes the performance will not only create a dialogue around issues impacting her community, but also invigorate its culture and encourage creativity. “Theater is a perfect medium, I hope, to change a dynamic…not a lack of culture, but a lack of youth culture,” she says. Benito Juarez—whose motto declares, fittingly, “Proud…Strong…Soaring to New Heights”—has a similar goal. Introducing the performance, school principal Juan Carlos Ocón announced, in Spanish, that their mission at Juarez is to become “not only a center for community, but also a center for creativity and collaboration.”
If the ensemble was any indication, Juarez and Keenan were successful in engaging a broad community-based group. Actors and actresses hailed from Little Village, Pilsen, Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Garfield Park, Back of the Yards, and Brighton Park, with musical accompaniment by members of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. Although many of them had some background in acting or musical theatre, only one actress had acted professionally. “If she said she was a dog catcher and she worked in the area and she sang, that would be fine,” Keenan said about a hypothetical actress. A chorus of students from Latinos Progresando and Benito Juarez programs joined in on stage for the finale. “In the Heights” is the fifth production Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has produced at Benito Juarez. They hope that this is part of a larger, ongoing effort to engage the surrounding communities—an effort which also includes bringing a Shakespeare in the Parks series to Dvorak Park in the summer.
“It tells their story,” said Kendall Karg, an arts leadership fellow at CST. “They’re struggling with everything from their neighborhood, immigration, language. This was the right piece to reflect their community.”
At times during the performance, like when Nina sang, “I used to think we lived at the top of the world, when the world was just a subway map,” Chicagoans were gently reminded that the characters weren’t their neighbors, but New Yorkers. But the crowd at “In the Heights”—both audience and ensemble—had gathered to celebrate their own community.