Students to perform the hit musical from the creator of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, after first conducting immersive field research in New York City
by Jon Adolph
Before he revolutionized Broadway with Hamilton, the musical that mashed hip hop with American history, playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda launched his remarkable career with another genre-redefining musical, In the Heights. That production, set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, explored Latino and immigrant culture and won four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical. Miranda’s music and lyrics for the show, which combine elements of Latin salsa and hip hop, also won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
So it’s not surprising that Williston Northampton School theater director Emily Ditkovski calls In the Heights “one of my favorite musicals of all time. I was dying to do it.” She gets her chance, April 28, 29, and 30 and May 5, 6, and 7, when the Williston Theater brings the Broadway smash to Easthampton.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Ms. Ditkovski says, and she means that in all senses of the phrase.
To help her cast better understand the origin of the production, she traveled in January with her students to New York City, where they met with faculty and staff of City University of New York’s Dominican Studies Institute and got to hear firsthand about the play’s development over lunch with members of the original Broadway cast (see http://willistonblogs.com/artsspotlight/2016/01/25/in-the-heights-research-in-new-york/). The students then toured the real-life setting of the play, Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, which also happens to be where Ms. Ditkovski taught in early 2000s. “I took the students by my old school and the bodega my students would go to on their way home,” she says. “It was a pretty amazing experience.”
But preparing for the play has also been a journey of discovery for her students, as they immersed themselves in new cultures to better understand the context of the musical. “We hosted a panel of Dominican and Puerto Rican community leaders in Holyoke, who spoke of their experiences, and we have been working with [local music director and teacher] Heshima Moja, who has not only been our dialect coach but our cultural consultant,” she explains. “With each line of Spanish, Moja teaches us not only the translation, but the cultural importance of the phrase.” The cast also met with Wane Peterkin, a graffiti artist, who discussed the importance of graffiti in New York City, and beyond. (Graffiti plays a key role in the musical’s plot.)
In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi, a bodega owner (named for what his parents first saw upon arriving in America: a U.S. Navy ship), and other residents of the largely Dominican American Washington Heights neighborhood. Usnavi has his eye on Vanessa, who works in the neighboring beauty salon, and he dreams of winning the lottery and returning to his native Dominican Republic. Over the course of three eventful days, Usnavi and others in his community experience heartbreaks, make sacrifices, and celebrate triumphs as they face changes in their neighborhood and in their personal lives. Ultimately, the play becomes an exploration of timeless human values, with lessons that apply to audiences and communities everywhere.
Miranda, the show’s creator, has made a point of encouraging high schools all over the country to perform the work, citing how valuable theater was to him when he was in high school. Ms. Ditkovsi needed little persuasion, but she also understood the challenges.
“Playing another culture, as we will be doing with In the Heights, is complicated—especially with the history of our nation and the history of white-dominated storytelling on Broadway,” Ms. Ditkovski explains. “I wanted to do this as best I could and make this project more than just a play but a holistic learning opportunity.”
Audiences will be able to see the results over two weekends, April 28, 29, and 30 and May 5, 6, and 7, starting each night at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 (general admission) and $7 (students/seniors), available at wnsboxoffice.tixato.com/buy.
About the Williston Theater: The Williston Theatre provides the performers, technicians, and designers of the school with hands-on opportunities to practice their craft. We produce performances for the Williston community and the greater Pioneer Valley that entertain our audiences, enrich their lives, and challenge them to think about our world in a new way. In addition to our extensive extracurricular program, we offer classes in acting and directing, and Williston Scholars projects in acting, directing, playwriting, and technical theatre.