Jose Mercado has been a man with a mission when it comes to turning inner-city kids into accomplished thespians for years now, and his ardor for what seems an impossible task never seems to diminish. It's just that he's so good at it. Mercado came from his own barrio roots; his own love of cultural life and a memorable mentor at UCLA helped him overcome whatever obstacles life might have thrown in his path. His most recent project is the rejuvenation of the Historic Elitch Theatre, and he's thrown that cause into an earnest symbiosis with his goal to introduce barrio youth to theater by presenting student productions on an outdoor stage under the aegis of the Historic Elitch Theatre School for Arts Education. That's a big mouthful to describe a program imagined as an alternative outlet for students left in the cold by dwindling arts opportunities in the public schools, but the small strides made by his mentees speak for themselves.
Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., you can see Mercado's ideals at work when a troupe of high school and college students perform scenes from Shakespeare in Spanish and English during an evening of Bilingual Barrio Shakespeare. Augmented by music from Devotchka's Shawn King and costumes by designer Mona Lucero, it's an opportunity for talented kids to show off what they've got.
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"At the beginning," Mercado admits, "it was intimidating for them, so we began by reading Shakespeare in Spanish. For some of them, it was the language they're more familiar with. Understanding Shakespeare in their own language made their appreciation of it more visceral." And the juxtaposition of English and Spanish they use in the scenes, he adds, "resembles the way they speak on day-to-day basis, yet honors Shakespeare's brilliant use of language." Throw in a little hip hop dancing and other personal touches, and Mercado thinks they'll have a show tailor-made to take on the road this fall to area school stages. Win-win. "It's not your mom and pop Shakespeare," he notes.