Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s students participate in South Bend Civic Theatre production
The South Bend Civic Theatre’s (SBCT) production of “In the Heights,” which runs through March 25, features three students from the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s community: Notre Dame sophomores Jay Rivera-Herrans and Samuel Jackson, and Saint Mary’s sophomore Rachel Thomas.
“In the Heights” is the story of four lead characters, Usnavi, Vanessa, Benny and Nina, who all live and work in Washington Heights — a racially-diverse neighborhood in New York City, Thomas said.
As someone from Puerto Rico and a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rivera-Herrans said he knew he had to audition for South Bend Civic Theatre’s production of “In the Heights.” Four months later, he has taken on the role of Usnavi, a character Miranda wrote and originated on Broadway.
“[The character] feels like a glove on me. He’s an energetic guy, he’s Hispanic,” Rivera-Herrans said. “Half the time people are like, ‘Are you even acting?’”
Thomas plays Vanessa, one of the female leads who wants to leave Washington Heights more than anything. Thomas said the hardest part about portraying Vanessa is embodying Vanessa’s experiences and their complexities.
“She’s a difficult character to play because she goes through things that I have not yet experienced,” she said. “Vanessa’s father is not in the picture and her mother drinks away Vanessa’s money. So what I had to do was look inside myself and think, ‘What were the moments where I felt like I’ve worked hard for something and deserved something and I don’t get that something?’ Vanessa wants to leave — I’ve related that to my desire to leave Indiana and go to New York.”
Notre Dame sophomores Natalie Behling and Kassadee Ifft became involved through a Spanish class.
“The show is of professional quality, and it has been incredible seeing it take shape from audition day to now,” Behling said.
Behling photographed the production process and Ifft worked as an usher for one of the performances.
“It was ‘excelente,’” Ifft said. “It was partly in Spanish, partly in English, so it was a way to unite so many different populations of people. … This was my first South Bend Civic show and I quickly emailed my professor and was like, ‘Hey, do they have any other positions open? Because I want to go again.’”
SBCT executive director Aaron Nichols said past productions of the show in Chicago and Australia were heavily criticized and even shut down due to “whitewashing,” and this was not a mistake he wanted to repeat. The theatre began building bridges in South Bend’s Latin American community before they even officially decided to put on “In The Heights,” he said.
“[We were] going into communities instead of [having] the kind of ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality. You know, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ You can’t expect that to work,” Nichols said.
Thomas said the show is very timely and offers its support to those still affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“This show is coming at a perfect time with what we see happening in Puerto Rico,” she said. “In 2008 — which is when this show is set — in Washington Heights there was a power outage that went on for a day or longer. … These people were out of power for a long time. If you think about Puerto Rico right now, they’ve been out of power for months and this show is coming at a perfect time where we can reflect on that and what it’s like to come together as a community to support people.”
The cast’s diversity and connections to the story is what makes this production of “In the Heights” so unique, Thomas said.
“I love the show because I love being immersed in the cultural aspect,” she said. “Everyone in the production has ties to it and can relate to the story and the characters because it is them.”