Right before Thanksgiving break, the Argus published a review of a student remake of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights.” As a Dominican-American with immigrant parents, I as well as other students of color were frustrated with the various ways in which this production was disrespected.
In the review, the writer questioned whether the story depicted an accurate reality for those living in Washington Heights. While her social critique was not wrong, “In the Heights” is about much more than just gentrification. “In the Heights” was meant to tell a nuanced story about everything in the immigrant experience — love, family, community, in addition to social commentary. Not all stories about oppressed populations need to be about their oppression; in fact, much of the US immigrant experience is defined by a transformation from overcoming this oppression. There is beauty within our displacement too. Moreover, the use of the word “conservative” to describe the story totally ignores how charged the term is — in this country, being “conservative” can mean anything from opposing affirmative action to believing in incarcerating all undocumented immigrants. Especially when used against a show of all-POC, the label “conservative” dismisses our struggle against the racist, oppressive structures that people in power abuse us with every single day.
Even if the director, Milton Espinoza Jr. and everyone else involved in the show found a way to legally change the script to make its social critique more salient, this new show would simply not be “In The Heights.” If Espinoza Jr. were to remake the musical, it could have been interpreted as a critique of Lin-Manuel’s efforts to rightfully expand musical theater productions to POC and capture the NYC immigrant experience. But given that Lin-Manuel literally redefined the role of POC in musical theater by writing this show, it is perfectly fair for Espinoza Jr. and company to simply pay respect to such an instrumental figure with a faithful rerun.
Curiously, the writer actually did pick a scene that deserves to be analyzed. I, too, found the “Carnaval Del Barrio” scene kinda off, but not for the same reason. As everyone was celebrating proudly and waving the flags of Latin America in the streets of New York City, I couldn’t help but notice that the Spanish flag was included in the scene. Pero mi gente, as sung by Fulanito in “Guallando”: “en el 1492 llegó un tipo que dijo que descubrió la quisqueya mía, ave maría, get outta here con eso.” In a production about Dominican-Americans and other members of the diaspora, it is demeaning to Latinx-American immigrants to elevate the flag of their colonisers and oppressors to the same level as their own. As Ricardo Vega elaborated in his Wesleying post, “In the Heights with the Whites–White Students in POC Spaces,” given that white people already take up so much space that should belong to POC, Christopher Columbus especially does not deserve a seat at the table.
*Chadwick Boseman entered the chat* “We don’t do that here.”
The review was on the front page of the Argus, but it was relegated to a space all the way down on the small corner of the front page, amplifying conversations about how POC shows are egregiously undercovered in the Argus. This lack of representation compounds the struggle for students of color in theater, who already need to contend with a white-dominated space. However, the front page story was about a conflict between a white student and a young black boy that could have resulted in the latter being killed or jailed by the Middletown police. While it is true that the Traverse Square conflict deserves more attention, this unfortunate coincidence in news coverage does not absolve the Argus and the greater Wesleyan community of continually marginalizing POC voices and experiences on campus. It is exceedingly rare and such an astonishing achievement for a Wesleyan musical production to have an all-POC cast, and the Argus as well as the Wesleyan community must understand the frustration stemming from this lack of attention compared to predominately-white student productions.
Under Trump’s regime, it is difficult to be an immigrant — and even dangerous for undocumented folx terrorized by state violence. It is exactly because of these challenges that it is important for stories like “In the Heights” to inspire hope and resilience for immigrant families of color in the US. Because while “pluck, hard work, and a strong sense of community” is not “a solution for all ills,” it definitely must be a part of the solution. And it is precisely through showcasing these nuances that “art goes further.”
Thank you to EVERYONE that was involved in this show. Thank you for the hard work y’all pulled. Thank you for representing our stories. Seeing you made us smile, laugh, and bawl out crying. No pare sigue sigue!