The Next Stage

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

"I'm proud of José," says Manuel Roybal, a professional actor who plays the father of Ernest's character. "He went off to school, and he came back more focused. He really knows what he wants. As soon as he told me he was doing this show, I thought, 'Fantastic.' I just knew the whole idea was going to fly."

Spanish runs through Zoot Suit Riots like striations in a piece of beef. But not everyone is getting it. Addison, one of the few white actors cast in the play, has had a particularly hard time. His character, George Shibley, is an idealistic young lawyer who tries to earn points with his Chicano clients by making long statements en español. On April Fools' Day, Mercado decides to cut those lines from the script.

Setting the scene: The Zoot Suit 
Riots cast includes professional actors like Manuel 
Anthony Camera
Setting the scene: The Zoot Suit Riots cast includes professional actors like Manuel Roybal.

"Why'd you throw out all the Spanish parts for me?" Addison asks. He's joking, but a little hurt.

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Mercado asks, then smiles. "You're having a hard enough time with the English."

The Zoot Suit cast comes from all corners of Latino culture, like the population of North itself. More than 80 percent of the school's 1,500 students are classified as Hispanic; nearly 20 percent speak little or no English. Every year, the school swells with more students from Mexico, Central and South America. Mercado, the child of a Mexican-born father and a Latina mother, chose Zoot Suit to reflect that.

"I wanted to do something that was culturally different from what people were used to," he says. "Chicano culture is something that these students have been conditioned by society to suppress; you're not supposed to identify with your culture, and the expectation is that you won't. But I purposely did something that was high-profile and relevant to their actual lives."

The cast includes Mexican-born students who don't speak much English -- one had to abort a speaking role because he couldn't master his lines -- as well as children of immigrants who don't always understand or support their child's interest in acting. When one girl arrived at an after-school rehearsal, she was near tears with surprised excitement: Her family had finally agreed to come see her in the show. "They never come to anything that I do," she told Mercado. "This is the first time they've ever said they'd come."

"So many kids struggle with the habits and traditions of their family," he says. "They aren't encouraged to go to school; they'll go straight to work after high school. My own father was that way. He wanted me to work. He didn't see a show that I was in until I was almost through with college."

"Getting parents in that community involved is quite remarkable," says George Stevenson, who oversees music, dance and theater education for Denver Public Schools. "We know that art keeps kids in school, and that if you can get a kid in high school involved in the arts, they're going to graduate. But a great number of kids at North High School live at or below the poverty line, and that sometimes doesn't allow the parents the time to take off to participate."

Having a multi-ethnic, bilingual cast on hand proves convenient today.

Ernest is struggling with an important scene where, armed with a knife, he prepares to fight a member of a rival gang. His lines include the expression "que no" -- a phrase that, as a question, translates roughly to "Isn't that right?" In this case, though, it essentially means "I'm going to kick your ass." Ernest tries it several times, approaching the line from all angles, but it just keeps coming out wrong. Que, no? Que. NO! QUE! No. Qué? No?

The group on stage with him is full of Spanish speakers, who coach Ernest to a believable delivery: Que no. Suave. Usted lo tiene.

"You've got your Mexicanos and Chicanos, who, I guess, are Mexicans born in America. It all doesn't make any sense to me, really," says Emily. "It's definitely a dividing point within the student body. There's cliques for each group. But it's not really that way in drama. Everybody kind of shares with each other. The Mexicans come in and share their dialect and their culture, and it's cool. It's just not that big of a deal."

In the hallway outside the auditorium, Ernest is practicing: Que no. Que no. Que no. On stage, a boy from Mexico break dances on his head.

Manuel Roybal is teaching Elvis Nuñez a very valuable lesson, actor to actor.

"The trick is to walk like you passed gas," says Roybal, waving his hand behind his rear as they move across the stage in tandem. Their knees are bent, their elbows loose. They bounce together, laughing.

Roybal stars in commercials and productions for El Centro Su Teatro and other local companies. Elvis is eighteen years old, with spiky, blue-black hair, pierced ears and several small scars that mark his square face like tears on a canvas. Today the two share the stage as equals.

"I love working with these young people because they're so raw," Roybal says. "They're learning, and there is so much to learn! We learn life from the stage. By playing different characters in different situations, you learn what to do. It teaches valuable lessons. It's what life is all about."

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