The Next Stage

Home from Hollywood, José Mercado is putting on a show ­ and showing Denver what North kids can do.

 A cloudless spring day in northwest Denver. JOSÉ MERCADO is standing in the doorway of a small brick house on Zuni Street, trying to convince an eighty-year-old woman to let him into her basement. That's where he believes he'll find the woman's seventeen-year-old grandson, ERNEST APODACA.

JOSÉ: Would you mind if I just came in here and had a look around?

GRANDMOTHER: I'd really rather you didn't. My grandson isn't here. I don't know where he is. He's at that age. I'm too old to keep track of him.

Anthony Camera
José Mercado and  Emily Hare
Anthony Camera
José Mercado and Emily Hare

JOSÉ: He didn't show up for rehearsal. I'm his teacher at North. Some of the kids said he was sleeping...

GRANDMOTHER: I don't know anything about that. But I've heard a lot about you. It's nice to meet you.

The kid is in there; JOSÉ is sure of it. But he nods politely at the woman and backs down the steps, looking into the small back yard. Searching for clues, evidence of teenage life. For a moment, he considers hopping the chain-link fence and taking a look in the window. Instead he walks back to his car, a tan sedan strewn with papers, a half-eaten bagel and a now-cold cup of very strong coffee.

JOSÉ: This is getting to be too much. (He grips the wheel. ) They really don't pay me enough to do this.

It's a rainy afternoon in early March, and Denver's North High School is filled with reminders that the end is in sight -- of the school year, at least. Handmade signs announcing the yearbook cover the cream-colored hallway, which is filled with bright fluorescent light and the smell of high-powered cleaning fluids. The last bell of the day has rung, and students swarm the exits in clumps. In the main office, a girl makes a plea into her cell phone:

Come pick me up, pendejo, she says. I wanna get out of this hellhole.

In Room 141, where José Mercado teaches drama, literature and stagecraft, the work is just beginning. Sitting in a square of tables, twelve students surround Mercado, reading through a play that, in two months, they'll perform for their school, their parents and their community. But for now, they're just trying to get through the script in one sitting.

"I don't know any of these words," says one boy after stumbling through his part. "I think I must be illiterate. Or maybe I'm just retarded."

"You're not illiterate, and you're not retarded," Mercado replies. "It's not constructive to say that. Just take your time with it. Don't be afraid to take chances. Have some fun with these characters."

Room 141 is decorated with artifacts that illustrate Mercado's love of theater, leftist politics and language. Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country?, The Chomsky Reader and Spanish volumes by Rudolfo Anaya and Gabriel García M´rquez are fanned out on bookshelves. Taped to the walls are newspaper clippings from Los Angeles, where Mercado once worked as an actor. Computer printouts outline the "Six Content Standards for Theatre." "Students know and apply connections between disciplines; students understand and relate the role of theatre arts to culture and history," reads one.

Everywhere you look, there's something you can learn from. When a garbled announcement booms over the loudspeaker -- "GREEN CHILE SALE IN THE UPSTAIRS STAFF ROOM" -- Mercado turns the interruption into a lesson on diction.

"Did anyone understand a word he said?" he asks. "No? Me neither. That's the importance of enunciation."

Mercado is a small, intense man with a dark goatee, bright brown eyes and a blue-jeans fashion sense. At 29, he's one of the youngest teachers at North; he's also described as one of the most ambitious. When he was named head of the theater department last fall, he said he planned to raise the standard of theater at North, which hasn't shaken its reputation as an all-around "bad school," despite its active art, music and dance programs.

"A lot of people asked me, 'Ooh, you're going to take a job at North? Do you know about North?" Mercado remembers. "They thought I should be teaching at the Denver School of the Arts or someplace like that. But North is the kind of school I went to, in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. It's where I thought I could connect and actually do something."

Right away, Mercado changed the name of North's drama club to the Black Masque Theatre Company, to make it sound more professional. In October, he directed his first show: Love, Laughter & Lagrimas, an experimental series of vignettes and monologues written by literary figures from Shakespeare to Federico García Lorca. The production included hip-hop, breakdancing and some unscripted trouble. In a heated bit of improvisation, one student called another a "crack whore." From then on, Mercado was told, North's drama students wouldn't perform improv in public.

In February, Mercado began working on his biggest project of the year: the spring musical. Some students and teachers wanted him to pick something light -- Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls. Instead, Mercado selected Zoot Suit Riots, an adaptation of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, a politically charged drama based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case that rocked Los Angeles in 1942. The play follows a group of young males wrongly imprisoned for murder and depicts the racially fueled riots between Hispanic youths and white servicemen that consumes L.A. in the wake of their imprisonment. It's a big show with lots of Spanish dialogue, a few complicated musical numbers, many complex characters and combustible themes, from police brutality to cultural self-hatred. Grease, it is not.

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