Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In the Heights

The musical “In the Heights” is characteristically classical in structure, adhering to traditional unities of time, place and action, while maintaining a fast, almost non-stop pace. The story bursts with naturalistic reality and the musical and dance performances offers views a direct and powerful encounter with the play writer's thinking in a Nuyorican’s world view. It’s a stark universe peopled with characters who represent “types”: family, freedom, proud, doubt.

After the theater lights dim, without an immediate overture, the onstage actions started, showing Graffiti Pete spray-painting on to the awning of a bodega owned by Usnavi, as a foreshadowing. Then the first song “In the Heights” kick-starts the plot and communicates the spirit of the score and the staging, and together with dances, shows Usnavi opening his bodega and talking to the major characters and neighbors. This song sets the tone for the whole show and starts the “storytelling” process by attracting audience’s attention right away.

As the play progresses, the characters reveals their problems, motivations and inner desires one by one: Nina struggles at college, so are Nina’s parents at their business. Usnavi likes Vanessa. Vanessa wants to escape to a studio in the West village. Each confession was a song. The story unfolds primarily in three lines simultaneously: the first line revolves around the relationships between Nina, her parents and Benny. Despite the biased conflicts, they always have hope for the ones they loved. The second line reveals the subtle love tension between Usnavi and Vanessa; neither one would admit his/her affection towards the other. The third line focuses on Abuela Claudia, and her emotion towards winning the $96,000 lottery.

The climax is reached in the end of Act I when the “blackout” happens and fireworks explodes in the sky. In the darkness, everyone starts to reflect and truly express him/herself. Noticeably, at the moment of great dramatic intensity came the dance performances, accompanied by breathtaking lighting effects. The falling actions began when Abuela dies. In grief of her, everyone finds his/her own destination. Usnavi pursues his dream of going back to Dominican Republican to start a new business, Nina decides to go back to Stanford with her whole family’s support and Vanessa finds her way to her dream apartment with the help from Usnavi and the salon owner Daniela. Though, worries still exist: the new couples, Nina and Benny, Usnavi and Vanessa, now face having long distance relationships. In the end, a powerful closing song “Finale” wraps up the show’s plot, unveiling Usnavi’s final realization, upon his seeing the graffiti mural of Abuela, that deep in his heart, his roots are in this barrio.

Latino immigrants’ struggles for identity in New York City are expressed throughout the play, addressing cultural and social conflicts and assimilations. Usnavi and Nina as second-generation immigrants, grow up in an all-Latino barrio in New York City in a mixed American-Hispanic culture. Yet they, along with Nina’s parents and Abuela, the first-generation immigrants, are still in the process of adapting to a new way of life. They are struggling to find their identities and adjust themselves to new forms of cultures and social interactions; Nina tries hard to fit in Stanford, while Usnavi wants to go back to Dominican Republic to escape from the difficulties.

Culture is the sum of the ways of believing, thinking, feeling and behaving, which make up a person’s life. “To be a man” is an important consideration for many male individual, but what constitutes “being a man” in one society is different from what constitutes it in another. For instance, in the culture of Puerto Rico, being a man means having a keen sense of one’s inner worth as an individual, exercising authority firmly over wife and children in a home; respect proper respect from people younger than oneself; manifesting fidelity to deep family loyalties and a preference of family over others. That is exactly how Kevin, Nina’s dictatorial father is portrayed. He sold the business without telling other family members, as a firm exercise of authority, for which it would be praised in former environment, now is just a ridicule.

If culture consists of patterns of interaction, society is the actual interaction; it is the people acting according to commonly accepted values, norms, objectives and meanings. The United States is(ideally), an open class society with equal opportunity for everyone to advance to that position to which his ability and effort entitle him. The central value of the culture is the value of the individual and this culture set out to release the individual from all bonds of class, family, or race which would hinder him from developing him/herself fully and reaching the level which he deserved, that is, the phenomenon of advancement through education, business success and so on. In a Puerto Rican society, however, this is not the case: people are born into their class and has no expectation of changing. This contrast is brought up when Kevin sings that his father used to slap him for not wanting to be a farmer. Therefore, it explains when Kevin enters an open class society with upward mobility, he becomes aware that he and his family have the chance of being accepted by others as an equal in earning a better living and supporting Nina’s education.

After all, this musical “In the Heights” has a traditional and effective dramatic structure. Its address of social and cultural issues was an inseparable part of its plot and character portrayal. What is more important, it gives all audiences an opportunity of self-reflect.

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