Broadway

In Defense of In The Heights

A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:

“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”  

“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”

“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”

“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”

“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”

“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”

You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.

Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”

Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.

During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.

In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.

edwinroman.com

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.