The Next Stage

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

Elvis has learned some lessons about life, and drama, already. Raised on the north side by his mom, he's been taking drama classes since the fifth grade. When he was ten, he won an award for his performance at the annual DPS Shakespeare festival; since then, he's won two more times. But Zoot Suit Riots is the play he's been cast in at North. Last spring he built the sets for Cinderella and watched the show come together from the sidelines. Early into that production, he knew every character's lines.

"I knew everything -- the way they were supposed to play it, how they were supposed to move," he says, laughing. "I'd just sit back there mouthing the words, watching them do it wrong."

Elvis knows every line in Zoot Suit Riots, too, even though his character, El Pachuco, has the fewest of any lead. But El Pachuco can do something the other characters can't, he points out: "He can stop time. He's kind of like a god, in a way."

El Pachuco serves as Zoot Suit's narrator and conscience. He wears the most fly suits and has his own Pachuco walk, a sort of side-shuffle crawl. With a word and the snap of his fingers, he can freeze the action of judges, cops, servicemen, anyone. El Pachuco was played most famously by Edward James Olmos in the 1981 film version of Zoot Suit. But Elvis has tried to mold his own character. In fact, he's found El Pachuco hard to shake.

"He's just the coolest character in the world," says Elvis. "I've been thinking about him all the time. Doing the Pachuco walk when I'm with my friends, saying things that he would say. And he says some pretty weird things. My mom thinks I'm crazy."

Aside from his friends, Zoot Suit Riots is the only thing about high school that Elvis likes right now. He's dropped out, been kicked out, messed up enough times that his teachers finally gave up on him. He now attends an alternative school, then rides the bus across town for rehearsal every day. He's tried, and failed, to graduate twice. He doesn't do well on standardized tests, and he doesn't always show up for class. Like a lot of North's students, Elvis doesn't look great on paper.

But then, neither does North. A 2003 student profile placed the school below district averages in most categories, including attendance, graduation rates and performance on standardized tests. In mid-March, the student group Jovenes Unidos released a 35-page report indicating that the school's statistics are actually grimmer than they look in DPS audits. Based on their own surveys, Jovenes Unidos places the graduation rate at 37 percent, compared to DPS's 60 percent.

The achievements of a student like Elvis don't show up in this kind of data.

"The trouble is that kids can start to believe that you can measure success on a couple of tests scores," DPS's Stevenson says. "But in the arts, we see evidence that anyone can shine. The question is, can you walk on stage and make people believe you? That's not something that comes with money or privilege or going to the 'right' school. That comes with talent. The challenge for teachers is getting the talented kids to believe it."

Elvis knows he has talent. After he finishes high school -- whenever that may be -- he'd like to attend college and study theater. That's something he'd never considered before this play. "I think of myself as an actor now, not just a member of the drama club," Elvis says. "Mercado brought this whole different atmosphere. I just related to him. He knows what he's doing. I'm not used to that with teachers.

"I hope this play will show that North isn't this dumb school with gangsters. I think it will show that there are some students here with talent. Mercado knows that: He could have been working with college students at UCLA, but he came here to work with us."

When Elvis walks out to the parking lot to greet his girlfriend, he's waving his hands behind his ass.


Mercado has developed a twitch. Just a small one, in his left arm. Every few seconds, it flares up and pulses, like there's a butterfly trapped in his biceps.

"This is a new development," he says. "This is the kind of thing I just don't know how to prepare for."

The twitch started on Saturday, March 20, when Mercado stopped by Room 141 and learned that Elvis and Ernest had been in a car accident the night before. A student came into the classroom crying and reported that they'd been smashed up good and had "bones sticking out all over."

"I assumed the worst," says Mercado. "I was already in a morbid mood. It was the eleven-month anniversary of my mother's death, and I just assumed the worst. Forget the show; I thought they were dead."

Fortunately, the boys were far from dead -- but they weren't in great shape, either. On the way down 1-70 from Lookout Mountain, where a caravan of friends had gone for a picnic on Friday night, the driver of the car Elvis and Ernest were riding in hit a patch of gravel and lost control. The car flipped three times. Elvis was thrown out the back window; Ernest bounced around inside. Paramedics scraped them both off the highway and into an ambulance. Ernest was released later that night, banged up with a sliced shin and a lightly sprained arm. Elvis spent three days in the hospital.

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