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GTA's 'In the Heights' highlights Latin community

HEIGHTSpromo2web.jpg
Ricardo Aponte, who played the role of Usnavi and choreographed the GTA production of "In the Heights," has worked as both a choreographer and actor for several Atlanta theatres

While Atlanta theaters have cited lack of Hispanic actors in shying away from staging the award-winning, Latin-influenced musical "In the Heights," the Gainesville Theatre Alliance (GTA) just finished a successful run that included several University of North Georgia (UNG) students.

In the Heights
Jim Hammond, GTA director and head of UNG's Department of Theater,
spoke at a special closing night reception about the theater program.

Jim Hammond, GTA director and head of UNG's Department of Theater, spoke at a special closing night reception about the theater program, which is a nationally acclaimed collaboration between UNG, Brenau University, theatre professionals, and the Northeast Georgia community.

"There were a lot of theater professionals in Atlanta who were wondering 'How are you going to produce that show? Where are you going to find the actors?' because they tell me Atlanta doesn't have the Hispanic casting pool to do this show," Hammond said. "So I said, 'Come on up and see it' because the cast all just appeared and they are brilliant. There are 24 in the cast and four are professionals … the other 20 actors are all students of this university and this program and they are incredible."

With a contemporary, Latin-influenced score by Lyn-Manuel Miranda and book by Pulitzer-prize winner Quiara Alegría-Hudes, "In the Heights" won the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score. Set in Manhattan's Washington Heights community, at the center of the show is Usnavi, a bodega owner who pines for the gorgeous girl next door and dreams of winning the lottery and escaping to the shores of his native Dominican Republic.

UNG marked the closing evening of the show, which was held at Brenau's Hosch Theatre, with a reception at the Northeast Georgia History Museum for members of Gainesville's Latino community. The reception was hosted by Dr. Patricia Donat, UNG provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Chris Jespersen, dean of UNG's College of Arts & Letters.

Latino immigrants have influenced the community and now comprise a growing segment of UNG's student population. In the past decade at UNG, enrollment of students declaring their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino has increased from 378 in October 2004, or 3.7 percent of the student body, to 1,508 in October 2014, or 9.4 percent of the student body.

Hammond also told guests at the event that he now is in discussion with several theatres about remounting "In the Heights" in Atlanta next year using much of the same cast.

One of the professional actors in the production was Ricardo Aponte, who played the role of Usnavi and choreographed the production. He has worked as both a choreographer and actor for several Atlanta theatres, including the Alliance Theatre, Georgia Ensemble, the Atlanta Lyric, Actor’s Express, and others.

"I’m originally from Venezuela; I grew up there and moved here at 18," the 33-year-old Aponte said. "This show really connects with me; I’m American, but I’m also Latin."

Playing the role of Abuela was Felicia Hernandez, who had experience as a nightclub singer in Atlanta in the 1980s and '90s. Much like her character, Hernandez has been operating a cleaning business in recent years. At the reception, Hammond explained his search for Abuela; he found Hernandez on Facebook after getting her name from a theater contact.

"Abuela just fell from heaven," he said. "She came up and I explained the story and the role she would be playing and she started to sing for us. This unbelievable voice came out and I stopped her. I said 'I want to work with you in this show' and she burst into tears."

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