Student dramaturg Allison Pichowicz explores the themes of “home” and “identity” in her Talk on the Steps for In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegrie Hudes, directed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato (February 2015):
The musical In the Heights takes place in Washington Heights, a neighborhood on the island of Manhattan in New York City. If you looked for it on a map, it would be between 151st Street and 181st Street. On the left would be the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge, and on the right the Harlem River. You hear both Spanish and English, and sometimes you’ll see signs in just one of these two languages. Even the advertisements and Ebola public service announcements on the A train subway are in Spanish. There are vendors on the streets selling clothing, bootlegged DVDs, and produce in what feels like an eclectic collective garage sale. You’ll see corner stores, salons, and mom and pop shops alongside the Pizza Huts and Burger Kings. The M35 bus, among others, winds its way down the streets. As I left the subway station on 181st Street, I even came across an Orthodox Jewish daycare center. It’s about 8 miles from where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve and about 530 miles from Elon University. Like most everything in life, even the things that seem far away and foreign can still seem applicable, even to us in the Elon University Bubble.
I’ve interpreted my role as dramaturg as bridging the gap between this small Latino community in New York to our community here at Elon. Particularly, I was interested in the ideas of “Home” and “Identity.” Now is the time where I direct your attention to my left. I created a graffiti wall lobby display and provided a couple of prompts, but the most recurring theme I saw was the idea of home. Some people wrote that home is a specific place: Miami, Arkansas, New Mexico, Missouri, New York, etc. Others wrote that home is about the people: moms, siblings, friends, beloveds, even Ke$ha. Home is a comfort food, a place where you always felt loved for who you were, a place where you automatically connected to Wi-fi. These ideas are separate yet not mutually exclusive.
It’s important to note that when I did my research, I found that many of the residents of Washington Heights had either immigrated there or were the children or grandchildren of people who had immigrated there in the past. While many of them now had addresses in America, they were still equally as invested in the life they had left behind. In many cases, they still had family back in their home countries. “Home” countries. Without giving away any of the plot, you’ll see a couple of characters in the show explain why they left their homes to come to America. This juxtaposition of home and current residence helps shape the identity of these characters.
You can see the home vs. residence conflict even in the students here at Elon. Even though we’re based in North Carolina, Elon attracts many students from the northeast. Seeing as I’m from New Jersey, I’m no exception. Even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in North Carolina since beginning school, can I really call myself Southern? For one thing, I believe that speed limits are “minimums,” pizzas aren’t made by Papa John’s and bagels are more than rings of bread. Sometimes my New Jersey accent comes out when I say “coffee.” I still follow the social media accounts of the local New Jersey/New York news stations. When I’m in North Carolina, I feel like no matter how much Cheerwine I drink or barbecue I eat, I will never be “Southern.” Then, I get home for New Jersey for the summer, and I realize that my language is changed. For one thing, I say “y’all” more than the average New Jerseyan. I also find myself speaking in a weird Northern Meets Southern dialect and finding myself confused when I don’t hear the name “Thom Tillis” come up in just about every newscast. So, when I find myself being more North Carolinian, am I suddenly becoming less of a New Jerseyan?
I had read an article on a study of Latino hair salons in a Boston Suburb. The author found that the bodegas and salons were popular because the clientele could relate to the owners and to each other. They talked about home and kept up to date with news both locally and abroad. These places were an informal source of counseling and had positive effects in the community. You’ll see these fleshed out in In the Heights through Usnavi’s bodega and Daniela’s hair salon.
In Washington Heights, many people identify with their ethnic identities. Just as I’d say, “Oh, I’m a New Jerseyan,” they’d mention how they’re Dominican or Puerto Rican or Cuban. Why? Aside from the strong connection to the “home countries,” maybe this is a result of the American identity. In this strange not-quite-melting pot of America, didn’t most of us come from somewhere else? Do you get more “American” as time goes on? My dad’s side of the family came from Poland at the start of World War II. Two generations later, does that mean I’m from Poland, too? Do people not ask me my ethnicity because they assume I’m American? I’m white, blue-eyed, and blonde; not exactly exotic looking in America. Would they assume the same about Usnavi, Vanessa, Nina or Benny even though they don’t look like me?
I’m telling you all this and asking these questions because I hope you can bring this food for thought with you to the show. I’m a Literature minor, and I’ve been learning about this idea of New Historicism. Basically, it’s looking at a piece of literature in a vacuum without any context of the history behind it or background. I think In the Heights needs the opposite approach. When you’re experiencing the rapid lyrics and distinct rhythms of this show, connect it to modern music and other musicals you know. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the show, said that he believes hip-hop music and melody are not two exclusive entities. Listen for it. For my fellow students, listen to Nina’s story. Her college experience might not quite match up with yours, or it could completely. Think of Abuela Claudia in relations to your own Grandmother. Start thinking of these connections and I think you’ll find your own home in this show. Thank you.