Two UB students explore their Hispanic heritage through 'In the Heights'

intheheights

Alejandro Gabriel Gómez and Jon Yepez are bringing cultural depth to the Buffalo’s theatre scene

The two UB students are performing in “In the Heights,” a production of cultural significance, at the MusicalFare Theatre, a non-profit theater company located on the Daemen College campus, until Oct. 11.

Gómez, a freshman theatre performance major, and Jon Yepez, a senior dance and music theatre major, play Sonny and Graffiti Pete, respectively. Both Gómez and Yepez know place is on the stage.

The former grew up in an artistic family of creatives.

“A lot of my family members are already actors or musicians or dancers, so it’s almost a family trade,” Gómez said. “I got into it and dove into it, the business, the career, the pursuance of it during my sophomore year [of High School], when I transferred to the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.”

Yepez, on the other hand, knew from a young age that he wanted to perform.

“When I was 5 years old I told my parents I wanted to be an actor. I’m originally from Miami, Florida and there’s a TV, film and modeling industry down there, so at 5 years old I started going to auditions and getting little gigs and stuff,” Yepez said. “I added singing to it in Middle School added dancing to it in high school, now I try to do it all.”

Both actors being of Hispanic descent. Yepez is Ecuadorian and Columbian and Gómez is Puerto Rican. Both stress the cultural significance that the production has.

The play not only moves the audience, but also gives the two young actors a profound understanding and appreciation of their Hispanic culture, they said.

“It’s groundbreaking for theater because it’s the first show that features a Latino cast, written by a Latino [Lin-Manuel Miranda],” Yepez said. “Because you have “West Side Story,” which everyone thinks of immediately when you think of Hispanic musical theater, wasn’t written by a Latino.”

Gómez’s father and aunt, who are also in the play, are a major part of the reason that this show was put into production. They started a Hispanic theater company called Raices, which means roots in Spanish, that collaborated with MusicalFare for “In the Heights.”

Raices started back in 2003, but postponed major production during a 10-year hiatus. Gómez’s family felt that the time was not yet right for what they wanted to do – everyone was busy with different projects.

They started back up in 2013 when they felt that it their vision for theatre could actually be a concrete possibility, instead of just a lofty dream.

The company creates a sense of belonging and family to other actors in the company, one that Yepez said he experiences both on and off the stage.

“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Yepez said.

Much like its name, Raices has brought the root culture of one’s homeland to American-born children of immigrants.

“For me the play has been validating, I feel like I am home in this show,” Yepez said. “There is every actor out there that has their dream show list, ‘I want to be in these shows before I die.’ This show was at the top of my list, if not number one.”

Gómez said he felt like this show has put him in touch with his roots. He said he grew up feeling like an outsiders because his family grew up in Puerto Rico.

Equally a cultural experience and production, the play has been receiving favorable reviews from audiences and critics alike.

“We’ve been getting great reviews and then just talking to the audiences after the shows, everyone’s loving it,” Yepez said.

Gomez said the most satisfying parts of the shows are the Wednesday talkbacks, where audience members can stay and talk to the performers after the show. The audience that stays after the show can ask cast members questions. He said there was once an elderly man on the brink of tears talking about how “In the Heights”is about a community and how connected he felt the cast was.

This sense of community transcends ideas of race: it’s about inclusion.

While the play is Hispanic, featuring parts spoken in both English and Spanish, the production casts individuals from various backgrounds.

Despite this being the first time that Raices has collaborated with MusicalFare on a production, the reviews bode well that future production collaborations can be expected.

“This play worked out well because everything had just fell into place,” Yepez said.

“In the Heights” will be running until Oct. 11 at Daemen College’s MusicalFare theater. Tickets are $18 per person.

Kenneth Kashif Thomas is an arts desk editor and can be reached at kenneth.thomas@ubspectrum.com