Theater at new heights: Monticello High School’s urban musical is refreshingly diverse

Monticello High School’s drama program reaches out with the award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights. Director Madeline Michel worked diligently to engage students of all cultural backgrounds. Photo by Elli Williams. Monticello High School’s drama program reaches out with the award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights. Director Madeline Michel worked diligently to engage students of all cultural backgrounds. Photo by Elli Williams.

“Ms. Michel, should I wear the red dress or the black dress?”

“Ms. Michel, I’m not singing today. I’m resting my voice.”

“Ms. Michel, I just want to let you know that I’m having my hair dyed on Friday!”

A mass of jittery young actors crowded the stage on Thursday night, peppering drama teacher and theater director Madeline Michel with last minute concerns before rehearsing Monticello High School’s spring musical, In the Heights. Then the lights dimmed, the students found their stage marks, and the airy 850-seat auditorium filled with quiet anticipation.

“You must be a little stressed with so much to manage,” I whispered to Michel during soundcheck, while leaning against a row of chairs for support after the onslaught of nervous energy.

“Oh, no, no,” said Michel, a bright-eyed Brooklyn native whose curly blonde hair travels through the halls well below many of her students’ shoulders. “I’m not that person at all. It’s all about the process. The mantra I keep repeating throughout this production is, ‘It doesn’t have to perfect, it just has to be real.’ It just has to feel authentic.”

A few moments into the play’s opening scene, as the vibrant graffiti-tagged set filled with a swarm of breakdancers, beating bass, and a rapping narrator, it’s clear that Michel has hit her mark. The audience is transported to a bustling, pulsing Dominican barrio in Washington Heights where three generations of music bursts from open windows, street carts push by with the sweet smells of café con leche and barbeque, and the community laughs, shouts, and sings its way through issues of family, survival, and personal and cultural identity.

In the Heights was written by Jewish-Puerto Rican playwright and composer Quiara Alegría Hudes and adapted into a musical by Puerto Rican rapper, lyricist, and composer Lin-Manual Miranda while he was a student at Wesleyan University. The play’s central character, 19-year-old Nina Rosario, like Miranda, leaves New York for an elite college, but returns to face the delicate balance between heritage and progress.

Hudes’ script and Miranda’s lyrics resonate with the students at Monticello, one of the most ethnically diverse public schools in Albemarle County, just as they have with critics—In the Heights debuted on Broadway in 2008, and went on the win 13 Tony awards and a nomination for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The production was a step outside the comfortable canon of high school musicals for the Monticello drama department, and musically, choreographically, and lyrically challenging, but Michel saw the need for a shake-up.

“You don’t just decide, ‘O.K., I’m going to put on a show that highlights diversity,’” said Michel, who has been teaching drama at Monticello for six years. “I open my doors to everybody. That’s really important to me. I go to theater competitions across the state and see a real lack [of diversity] in the kids, in the teachers. Theater is for everybody. It’s transformational.”

This open door policy and spirit of inclusion forged a community among the actors and crew, and drew students who never considered participating in theater. First time thespians were lured by the chance to dance salsa and meringue and hip-hop, rather than skipping through Oz or tap dancing in the rain, and students from neighboring schools, including Tandem, Charlottesville High School, and Albemarle High School, were encouraged to audition.

Obed Perez, a professional-level breakdancer from the Dominican Republic, attends Albemarle High School, and his mother drives him to Monticello every day for rehearsals. Elizabeth Lainez and Alex Espinosa-Navarro, who emigrated from Mexico with his family only two years ago and spoke very little English, were drawn by the chance to participate in a hip, current tribute to Latino culture.

Michel gives much of the credit for engaging a broad student body “and getting the kids excited about dancing” to Lauren Purkins, the play’s choreographer. Purkins grew up dancing, and trained at Southern Methodist University before an injury sidelined her dance career and led to teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Monticello.

Purkins says she sees proof of the play’s transformational powers on campus every day. “I see (the actors) outside of the auditorium talking to each other all the time now,” she said. “And kids come by and say hello to my students in our (ESOL) classroom. That didn’t happen before. Monticello is a very diverse high school, but everybody has their own pockets, and there is still racism.”

Instead of shying away from the questions and tensions the play raises, many of the students have been inspired to think critically about their own families, relationships, and plans for the future. “Everybody’s struggling because they’re concerned about their businesses and their homes, their rents are going up, they don’t know how they’re going to keep things going, or how they’re going to pay their bills,” said Elizabeth Lainez. “Really what it’s about is finding your home,” said Braelyn Schenk. “And everybody’s connected. Everybody’s struggles affect everybody else.”

With opening night less than a week away, I asked a group of students what they’re most looking forward to. “The hour leading up to the opening and the last 10 minutes of the final performance,” Lainez said. “First, when we’re all getting ready together and nervous and excited, and then when we take our bows.” Some of the other actors laugh and agree. “I’m scared about the last 10 minutes though,” she added. “I don’t want this to be over. We’re a family.”

In the Heights runs May 17-19 at Monticello High School. Tickets are $7-12 and available at the door or online at Showtimes vary. The Saturday matinee is a fundraiser for Creciendo Juntos, an organization dedicated to disseminating information and education to the Latino community.


Have you observed cultural crossovers in our community? Tell us about it in the comments section below…


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