The great thing about “In the Heights,” say cast members of the 2008 show that won the Tony Award for best musical and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is that it proudly and unabashedly proves that America’s Latinos are not a lock-step, one-size-fits-all monolith.
While they may share an ethnicity, Dominicans are as culturally different from Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians and Mexicans as Chinese are different from Japanese, Vietnamese or Cambodians in America’s Asian communities, they say.
Or as individual as those of European descent, who may all speak a common language these days, but who also lovingly hold onto various aspects — notably cuisine and celebrations — of their various heritages.
“There are different rhythms, different shades of meaning, different attitudes among Latinos,” says Presilah Nunez, who plays Vanessa, a young Dominican hairdresser in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, who dreams of getting out of the barrio and moving to a classy apartment “Downtown.”
“A lot of the Central and South American cultures are similar because of geographic proximity, but the Caribbean cultures are quite a bit different,” says Nunez, a Massachusetts native whose parents came from the Dominican Republic. “In America, we are a melting pot, but with a lot of intriguing differences — some subtle and some not-too subtle. My first name is pronounced ‘Priscilla,’ as in Presley, but my mother spelled it phonetically for Spanish because my grandparents butchered it by pronouncing the double ‘l’ as ‘y.’ ”
Adds Perry Young, who plays Usnavi, Vanessa’s would-be boyfriend and the owner of the corner bodega where everybody meets for morning coffee to hash out life’s problems: “People take such pride in their own communities. They speak to each other in subtly different ways. In one of my favorite scenes, one guy learns that even the swear words are different from culture to culture.”
Young is a native Californian from the Bay Area whose grandmother came to Texas from Mexico. He says being in this show has made him more appreciative of his rich multi-cultural heritage.
“I’m sort of a mutt. My father is Mexican, Spanish and Syrian, and my mother is a mix of various northern European heritages. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish at home because my grandmother insisted on English to get ahead,” Young says. “This show makes me appreciate my grandmother’s struggles and the struggles of all the first-generation people who came to make a new home. This show is the epitome of the American dream, but with a new beat.”
“In the Heights” runs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Century II as the final show of the season for Theater League. Its Tony-winning music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda showcase a variety of Latin sounds such as salsa and freestyle rap. The story by Quiara Alegria Hudes takes place during three days in a Dominican neighborhood on the verge of change. Residents discover what it takes to make a living, what it costs to have a dream and what it means to be “home.”
Young’s Usnavi character serves the same purpose as the avuncular Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” or Tevye, the poor Russian milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Usnavi is the link between the characters on stage and the audience,” Young says. “He opens the show, speaks directly to the audience and, in a seven-minute whirlwind number, introduces all the characters as the neighborhood comes to life and everybody stops by for their morning coffee.”
“Usnavi is such an amazing character. He’s the fixer, the guy everybody goes to for an answer, for a resolution, for the final word — even though he’s only in his 20s. That makes him all the more amazing,” says Young, who is 23. “He is the one actively trying to hold the neighborhood together. He is such a good and happy person that I find him really inspiring. I try to identify with him.”
The character’s unusual name is part of his charm, Young says. “He was named after the first thing his Dominican parents saw when they came to America. It was a ship with US Navy on it — hence, Usnavi.”
Nunez says that her Vanessa character was originally written as the requisite “attractive girl,” but that she sees her as so much more.
“Her good looks could be a cop-out if she leaned on them too much. I see her as a much more complex character, a real person,” says Nunez, who is in her early 20s.
“She is a strong woman, fiery and passionate but also pretty stubborn.”