by Eunice Bae
During the original Broadway run of In The Heights, some friends and I won box office lottery tickets to a Wednesday evening performance. What I saw on stage that night was something I had never before witnessed. The music, the story, the DANCING... what those artists were doing up there changed every preconceived notion I had about being an ensemble member and dancer in musical theatre. Another thing that struck me was the array of so many people of color that I had never seen in theatre. I wanted to be one of them, I wanted those beats to move my body as fiercely and lyrically as it did theirs, I wanted to be a part of that tapestry of color. I had no inkling that all I needed to be a part of it was for Washington Heights to make its way down to Washington D.C.
Growing up dancing in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., I knew nothing of the theatre world that was bubbling and about to rise to prominence in this city. It wasnʼt until after years of living everywhere but here (and a transition from visual arts to performing arts) that I got wise to the goldmine of creativity going on in my own hometown. Upon my first job in the area, I was instantly welcomed into this warm community and found a kinship with these artists who made me feel at home in my hometown all over again.
That feeling of belonging only deepened upon joining the wonderful ensemble of the Olney Theatre Center and Roundhouse Theatreʼs co-production of In The Heights. At the very first table read, there was hardly a dry eye in the room, everyone moved by the heart that each of us brought to this project. We knew we had a very special group, from our charismatic-as-hell lead, Robin de Jesus (from the original Broadway cast), to every person who brought their story to enrich the familia which we were about to join.
Then the first day we started to move, the genius of our director/choreographer, Marcos Santana, was immediately evident. As the dancing ensemble, we were pushed by his choreography to places we didnʼt realize we could go. I know for a fact that each one of us had that brain-leaking-out-of-your-ears feeling; we fought for every accent, every clave beat. Mostly, we just wanted to execute Marcosʼ choreography as well as he did himself. But no matter the mechanical execution of the music or dance, we were always encouraged to maintain the full-heartedness we had from the first reading. The colors, the flavors, the pride, the cultures of Washington Heights would be nothing without the people who filled the streets.
For Marcos, the most important message of the show was from a line in the opening number: “We came to work and to live, and we got a lot in common." Whether it be the Irish from a century ago, or the Dominicans from the aughts, (or the Koreans from the 80s), the common thread of this country is the people who came from afar to build a life, made noble through hard work. As many of us were immigrants or the children of immigrants ourselves, this story had long been in our bones and we were honored to be able to tell it.
Itʼs a great honor to be a part of a Helen Hayes nominated ensemble, particularly, in the musical that first showed me there just might be a place behind that fourth wall for a person of color who dances hip hop. Iʼm proud of how hard we worked, how far we were pushed and how much of ourselves we wove into that ever- growing tapestry of the Heights familia. In a show like In The Heights, the people of the neighborhood, the ensemble, informs so much of what the heart of the city is like. Being a D.C. area native and a NYC resident, being a part of this ensemble, in this place, in this very hotly contested time, has brought so many ideas of home, history and belonging together in one experience. Itʼs a rare thing indeed.