When Glow Lyric Theatre’s Christian Elser and Jenna Tamisiea chose the theme “Demand the Right to Dream” for the theater’s upcoming 2018 season, the inclusion of the word “dream” was intentional.
“It’s a purposely loaded word,” says Elser, the theater’s executive director.
And it also becomes deliberately political when considering “In the Heights,” one of the three shows Glow will produce this summer.
Featuring music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “In the Heights” portrays three days in New York City’s Washington Heights, a predominantly Hispanic-American neighborhood. Alongside musical numbers that fuse rap, hip-hop, and salsa, the production weaves together the stories of the community’s residents — many of them first-generation immigrants.
Elser and Tamisiea selected “In the Heights” earlier this year when the uncertain status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was a central focus of the immigration debate in the U.S., Elser says. (DACA allows young immigrants who arrived illegally in the United States as children to remain in the country, and many refer to those who would benefit from the program as “Dreamers.”)
While the future of DACA remains unresolved, immigration continues to be a hot-button issue across the country.
The use of theater to confront the current political climate and produce socially relevant art are central aims of Glow, and staging “In the Heights” aligns with that mission. Tamisiea, who is directing, hopes the show will lead audiences to “see first-generation immigrants as people with dreams and aspirations.”
Crystal Marie Stewart, a member of the ensemble, says “In the Heights” portrays “universal” experiences — “child-parent relationships, falling in love” — that can help bridge cultural gaps.
“I think it will surprise people how much of themselves they also see in it,” she says.
Ediberto Ortega, who plays Usnavi, the show’s central character who owns a local bodega and hopes to one day return to his birthplace of the Dominican Republic, believes the show can help remind people of what they ultimately have in common.
“We have an issue in this country right now where most of the people in this country are afraid of people who are different,” he says, “and I think … that when people see this show, some of that fear is going to be stripped away a little bit, because people are going to realize … that yeah, everyone’s different, but we truly are the same. We have different ways of culture. We have different ways of doing things. But we all kind of want the same things.”
For Ortega, “In the Heights” provides an opportunity to “make people reflect on their own opinions.” For example, the song “Paciencia y Fe,” sung by the neighborhood’s beloved matriarch “Abuela” Claudia, carries real-world relevance, Ortega says.
“It’s so important … because of what’s happening today with immigrants in this country,” he says. “That song takes you through a whole life of a woman who has worked her butt off after coming from such disaster, you know, back home and really found a home in America, regardless of the people who didn’t want her there. I think that’s a beautiful song. It’s very powerful.”
The ongoing immigration debate is a subject that “hits close to home” for the cast during rehearsals, says Katerina McCrimmon, who plays Nina, a student returning to Washington Heights for the summer following her first year at Stanford University.
“It’s not something that’s at a great distance; it’s something that’s happening now,” she says.
“These are real people with real stories and real wants and real desires who are all trying to prove something in one way or another. And that’s how people are relating to this show,” McCrimmon adds. “It’s not only because Latin people are going to see this show, and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, these are people like me.’ It’s going to be people from all walks of life.”
Glow Lyric Theatre presents “In the Heights”
When: July 21-Aug. 5, times vary
Where: The Warehouse Theatre, 37 Augusta St.
Tickets: $38 general, $48 reserved