The Next Stage

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

"When I woke up, I thought that I was the only one that survived," says Elvis.

Perhaps the fates had decided that Elvis was due for a break. He left the hospital with no broken bones -- just a line of stitches along his right leg, which had been skinned to the bone, as well as a battery of new scars and a cane to help him walk.

"When he was in the hospital, I didn't know if he'd be able to finish the show. I was prepared to postpone the production," says Mercado. "But he came out, and the doctor said he could keep going, and he wanted to keep going. In a way, the banged-up look kind of works with his character. Now if I find myself getting frustrated with them for something, I have to remind myself that, you know, Elvis just got thrown through a plate-glass window. He's lucky to be alive.'"

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

Elvis walks with a bit of a limp, but he likes the cane.

"It makes me look sophisticated, don't you think?" he asks, leveling it on his shoulder like a wooden rifle. The accident, he says, was actually the best thing to happen to him in a while. After Zoot Suit, that is.

"It's changed my perspective on everything," he explains. "I think before I would take stuff for granted. But I thought I was going to die. I was thinking, 'Oh, no! I won't get to do the play!' And you know what? That was a real downer."

From the beginning, Mercado had most of the play memorized, and he's got every scene plotted in his mind. Most of his student actors, however, do not. It typically takes two hours to block a scene that lasts five minutes. Often students don't remember their lines, much less the blocking that goes with them, from one rehearsal to the next.

"These kids don't know a lot of the basics -- concepts like 'upstage' and 'downstage,'" he says. "They don't know about this whole etiquette of the theater, that the stage is supposed to be like a church. When I see them up there with Coke cans or cell phones, it just makes me wince."

It's Thursday during spring break, with just three weeks to go before the curtain rises on Zoot Suit Riots. Mercado has come to a humbling realization in recent days: He's serious, but his actors, being teenagers, aren't always. And rarely are they all serious at the same time. A listing of the reasons why so-and-so couldn't make rehearsal begins every session; it's become as much a part of the ritual as warmups.

Had to work.

Went to Wendy's to get a Frosty.

Had track practice.

Had to go to Mexico for Holy Week.

Yesterday, Ernest was among the missing. Since his character, Henry, is in almost every scene, it's hard to work without him. Ernest's been missing a lot lately. Two weeks ago, he skipped an important rehearsal of a scene between Henry and Emily's Alice. Mercado put Elvis into the part for the day; the chemistry between the two was so strong that Mercado seriously considered replacing Ernest in the role.

Instead, Mercado had a talk with him -- "the Mercado lecture," as some in the cast call it -- and Ernest promised to do better. He'd be more dedicated. Practice his lines at home. Show up for rehearsal.

So when Ernest didn't surface the day before, Mercado went officially nuts. After some students told him that Ernest was sleeping in his basement, Mercado sent Ali and Elvis to rouse him. He wouldn't come, they reported.

This piece of information is what compelled Mercado to get in his car and drive to Ernest's house, where his grandmother guarded the front door.

"It's possible that wasn't the wisest thing for me to do," Mercado says. "My teachers at UCLA always said that the greatest thing about me was that I was willing to make a complete fool of myself in order to get the job done. I guess that's what that was about.

"I'm just used to people who want to be there," he adds. "I have a hard time comprehending someone like Ernest, who has such a big role in the play and then he just doesn'"

Ernest shows up today, though. Grandma has put the fear in him. So has everyone else.

"I've got teachers breathing down my neck all the time, but that was the first time any of them actually came to my house," Ernest says. "I just woke up that day and thought, 'I'm going to take this day off. For me.' I thought, 'You know, it's just a play -- a high school play.' I didn't realize everyone would be so mad at me. Everyone was mad. Elvis was really mad. He wouldn't talk to me. Let's just say I didn't really get the day off."

Tall and square-jawed, with runway-model looks, Ernest is seventeen, a junior. A student sergeant in ROTC, he's learning how to play the violin -- "the most beautiful instrument there is," he says. Like Mercado, he got involved with North's drama program to occupy his mind. Ernest's mom has multiple sclerosis and has been hospitalized for months. He now lives with his grandmother and little sister.

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