The Next Stage

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

"I'm a mama's boy to the max," he says. "At first I was like, 'Why should I care about any of this when my mom's sick?' But then I realized I needed to become a man, because I'm not going to have my parents to depend on. I need to become strong."

Last year, Ernest went to live with relatives in Northglenn. He appeared in a couple of plays at Horizon High School, but he hated the other students and the suburbs.

"They were all either racist or ignorant or just stupid," he says. "They'd claim to be in gangs, which I thought was pretty funny. I'm saying, 'This is Thornton. There is no poverty, no crime. What the hell are you talking about?'"

Ernest returned to North in time to appear in Cinderella. When it came time to audition for Zoot Suit Riots, he expected to land a small part. But Mercado saw something more in Ernest.

"I thought it could be a sanctuary for him," Mercado says. "The character of Henry has to go to some real emotional extremes. There's a scene in the play where he breaks down and falls to his knees, sobbing. It's a tough one for the actor playing it. But Ernest has always seemed the most focused when he does that one. I think he likes that it gives him the opportunity to have that release."

"Acting definitely is a big escape," Ernest says. "You're worrying about what the character is feeling, not worrying about your own problems. But you're using that emotion. It's a very strange thing."

In Zoot Suit, El Pachuco constantly antagonizes Henry. But in rehearsal, it's Mercado who taunts Ernest. Mercado forces him to run his scenes again and again, fine-tuning every gesture, every inflection, poking wounds in order to ignite the character.

"Mercado frustrates me every day," Ernest says. "I've been getting this bad-ass, tough-love treatment from my teachers all my life. 'Ernest, you have potential. Why don't you do this or that?' I don't know what to say to them, except, 'Look, I'm not the best kid. I'm not a straight-A student. I can't explain why.' But Mercado just keeps pushing and pushing. I hate it, but that helps me get into it."

After Mercado showed up at his house, Ernest renewed his promise. He'd learn his lines and remember his blocking. He'd show up.

"The play is really important to a lot of people. Now I feel like if I flop, it's going to be on my shoulders that the play sucks," he says. "I don't want that, so here I am."


On Tuesday, April 13, Emily's mom comes to the auditorium lugging a gigantic bucket of homemade spaghetti and a two-pound bag of carrots. She's here to feed the cast. She takes a seat in the second row and watches the stage where, with the lights down, Elvis and Ernest bring El Pachuco and Henry to life.

The scene is set inside a solitary-confinement cell in San Quentin. El Pachuco has come to tease Henry into believing that he'll never get out. El Pachuco and Henry are at each other, but Elvis and Ernest are friends again. Ernest has been working hard for the past week, and Elvis is feeling good about his part, too.

PACHUCO: Don't expect justice when it isn't there.

No court in the land's going to set you free.

Learn to protect your loves by binding them

In hate, ese! Stop hanging on to false hopes.

The moment those hopes come crashing down,

You'll find yourself on the ground foaming at

The mouth. ¡Como loco!Mercado makes the pair run the scene eight times. Each time it gets more intense, more physical, more focused.

"It's cooking. When it's like this, I don't feel like I'm teaching; I feel like I'm working," Mercado says. "Keep it up. Ramp it up even more. You're going to have the audience in the palm of your hand."

Zoot Suit Riots opens in two weeks, and Mercado feels the calendar closing in.

"My friend asked me the other day, 'Do you have a life?' And I do. But the play is always on my mind," he says. "I think that being insanely busy provides me with comfort. And my goal from the beginning was to make it the best show that it could be, not the best high school show it could be."

The costumes are all fitted. The students have finally memorized their lines. And today an unexpected check arrived: a $100 donation from the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. Still, there's so much to worry about. The turntable has to be installed on the stage. The dance numbers definitely need to be finessed. There are some students who haven't been to rehearsal in weeks. When Mercado thinks about it all, he wonders if some of those people were right. Maybe it is too big of a show.

A minute later, a memory from that day's rehearsal pushes the thought from his mind.

The chair. Emily and Ernest had run the chair scene, when Alice visits the prison and spars with Henry. This time, Ernest was focused and attentive. Emily was Alice. There were tears in her voice when she said the line: To hell with them! I hate them, too! And when she picked up the chair, she threw it hard.

The show will go on.

Zoot Suit Riots opens Friday, April 30, at North High School, and runs through the weekend. For ticket information, call 303-964-2700.

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