The Next Stage

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

That's what Mercado liked about it. He also liked that a production could feature delicious slang, cool music and lots of bad-ass costumes. With their bright colors, pegged pant legs and matching fedoras, the zoot-suiters would light up North's stage.

"Zoot Suit got a lot of people really inspired when it came out," says Mercado. "For me, it was the first time that I ever really learned about what had happened in L.A. The fact that this is history, that this is truth, really heightens the drama of the play."

But Zoot Suit had never been performed by a public high school troupe. And when Mercado announced that North would tackle it, some thought it was too big, too difficult, too adult for the school to handle.

Ernest Apodaca and Elvis Nuñez.
Anthony Camera
Ernest Apodaca and Elvis Nuñez.
Ali Paulson
Anthony Camera
Ali Paulson

"The attitude of some people was, 'We have no money, we can't do anything, and who are you, anyway?'" he says. "I have found a certain element that's ingrained: Screw you. This is North, so therefore there are no resources, and therefore the students are somehow less capable.

"My attitude was, I grew up in the ghetto and we didn't have any money, either," he continues. "But we didn't gloat about it. We'd dance in the streets. We found other ways to express talent."

Mercado believes that the sixteen student actors he's cast in speaking parts are capable of proving everyone wrong. Looking over the rehearsal schedule, which stretches into late April, he warns them all to prepare for weeks and weeks of hard work. If they're not ready to commit, he warns, they should leave now. Because by the next rehearsal, he wants them to have some idea of what they'll bring to their characters.

"Don't worry, Mercado. We have forever to get this down," says one boy. "We've got, like, two months."

"Yeah, well," Mercado says. "I promise you something: We'll need 'em."

According to the Viking yearbook staff, eighteen-year-old Emily Hare has the Best Personality, is the Most Outgoing, the Class Clown and the Most Dramatic student at North High School. Looked at in a certain way, she may be the Best Person in the Class of 2004, a group of nearly 400 students.

At the end of May, Emily will leave North for good; next fall she'll head off for college. But right now, she's everywhere. A senior, she's on the debate team and keeps the books for The North Star, the student newspaper. She's been in every theater production since her freshman year. Last spring she played a silly stepsister in Cinderella, a play directed by North's former drama teacher, Melissa Underwood.

Hare loved Underwood and was crushed when she moved into a position in the English department. And things got worse: Emily discovered she hated the new guy who'd been hired to replace her beloved teacher.

"I was pissed. I was mad. It was a big deal," she says. "I thought Mercado was a little bit cocky about his stardom or whatever. And I was pissed that he was bringing in all of this Mexican culture. I was tired of that. I was like, 'This is high school. We're supposed to have fun. Zoot Suit? I never heard of it. Let's do Singin' in the Rain.'"

Despite her misgivings, Hare, who is Hispanic, auditioned for Love, Laughter & Lagrimas and landed a spot in the ensemble. With Elvis Nuñez, a boy she knew from Cinderella, she improvised a vignette about a couple from Cherry Creek who move to the north side and have a hard time adjusting to all of the brown people. The scene was one of Love's funniest, and Mercado loved it. He encouraged Emily to come back and audition in the spring.

"It took until the end of that show for me to warm up to him," Emily says. "But he started giving me real motivation. I realized that he had a real passion to teach and that he was a good teacher. I think I was just hesitant toward him in the beginning; a lot of people were."

In Zoot Suit Riots, Emily plays Alice McGrath, a plucky newspaper reporter who leads a movement to free the young men imprisoned for the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Emily prepared for the role by watching old dame-walks-into-a-detective-agency-type films from the '40s. At first she thought she might like to play Lorena, the ingenue, a role that went to her friend, Ali Paulson. But Alice, who gives the play both its moral center and some comic relief, proved the more enticing challenge.

"It's the most difficult role I've ever had to play," Emily says. "Alice is somewhat like me -- she's either goofy or very adult. It's making me realize something about drama I didn't know before: It's scary, but it can start to show me who I am. It's like, by letting me be another character, it lets me be myself."

Over the past three weeks, Emily has been to every Zoot Suit Riots rehearsal and, by default, has taken on the role of an assistant director. Today she's leading five students through a warmup on North's auditorium stage. It's a familiar group. Next to Emily is Ali, a grade-school friend who works with her at a local coffee shop; then Ernest Apodaca, Ali's boyfriend; then Elvis, Ernest's best friend; then Austin Twaddle, Ernest's other best friend. The newest member is Addison Woodworth, a precariously tall sixteen-year-old sophomore who auditioned for the last spring's musical and, deciding he liked it, tried out again this year.

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