The Next Stage

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A cloudless spring day in northwest Denver. JOSÉ MERCADO is standing in the doorway of a small brick house on Zuni Street, trying to convince an eighty-year-old woman to let him into her basement. That's where he believes he'll find the woman's seventeen-year-old grandson, ERNEST APODACA.

JOSÉ: Would you mind if I just came in here and had a look around?

GRANDMOTHER: I'd really rather you didn't. My grandson isn't here. I don't know where he is. He's at that age. I'm too old to keep track of him.

JOSÉ: He didn't show up for rehearsal. I'm his teacher at North. Some of the kids said he was sleeping...

GRANDMOTHER: I don't know anything about that. But I've heard a lot about you. It's nice to meet you.

The kid is in there; JOSÉ is sure of it. But he nods politely at the woman and backs down the steps, looking into the small back yard. Searching for clues, evidence of teenage life. For a moment, he considers hopping the chain-link fence and taking a look in the window. Instead he walks back to his car, a tan sedan strewn with papers, a half-eaten bagel and a now-cold cup of very strong coffee.

JOSÉ: This is getting to be too much. (He grips the wheel. ) They really don't pay me enough to do this.

It's a rainy afternoon in early March, and Denver's North High School is filled with reminders that the end is in sight -- of the school year, at least. Handmade signs announcing the yearbook cover the cream-colored hallway, which is filled with bright fluorescent light and the smell of high-powered cleaning fluids. The last bell of the day has rung, and students swarm the exits in clumps. In the main office, a girl makes a plea into her cell phone:

Come pick me up, pendejo, she says. I wanna get out of this hellhole.

In Room 141, where José Mercado teaches drama, literature and stagecraft, the work is just beginning. Sitting in a square of tables, twelve students surround Mercado, reading through a play that, in two months, they'll perform for their school, their parents and their community. But for now, they're just trying to get through the script in one sitting.

"I don't know any of these words," says one boy after stumbling through his part. "I think I must be illiterate. Or maybe I'm just retarded."

"You're not illiterate, and you're not retarded," Mercado replies. "It's not constructive to say that. Just take your time with it. Don't be afraid to take chances. Have some fun with these characters."

Room 141 is decorated with artifacts that illustrate Mercado's love of theater, leftist politics and language. Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country?, The Chomsky Reader and Spanish volumes by Rudolfo Anaya and Gabriel García M´rquez are fanned out on bookshelves. Taped to the walls are newspaper clippings from Los Angeles, where Mercado once worked as an actor. Computer printouts outline the "Six Content Standards for Theatre." "Students know and apply connections between disciplines; students understand and relate the role of theatre arts to culture and history," reads one.

Everywhere you look, there's something you can learn from. When a garbled announcement booms over the loudspeaker -- "GREEN CHILE SALE IN THE UPSTAIRS STAFF ROOM" -- Mercado turns the interruption into a lesson on diction.

"Did anyone understand a word he said?" he asks. "No? Me neither. That's the importance of enunciation."

Mercado is a small, intense man with a dark goatee, bright brown eyes and a blue-jeans fashion sense. At 29, he's one of the youngest teachers at North; he's also described as one of the most ambitious. When he was named head of the theater department last fall, he said he planned to raise the standard of theater at North, which hasn't shaken its reputation as an all-around "bad school," despite its active art, music and dance programs.

"A lot of people asked me, 'Ooh, you're going to take a job at North? Do you know about North?" Mercado remembers. "They thought I should be teaching at the Denver School of the Arts or someplace like that. But North is the kind of school I went to, in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. It's where I thought I could connect and actually do something."

Right away, Mercado changed the name of North's drama club to the Black Masque Theatre Company, to make it sound more professional. In October, he directed his first show: Love, Laughter & Lagrimas, an experimental series of vignettes and monologues written by literary figures from Shakespeare to Federico García Lorca. The production included hip-hop, breakdancing and some unscripted trouble. In a heated bit of improvisation, one student called another a "crack whore." From then on, Mercado was told, North's drama students wouldn't perform improv in public.

In February, Mercado began working on his biggest project of the year: the spring musical. Some students and teachers wanted him to pick something light -- Anything Goes, Guys and Dolls. Instead, Mercado selected Zoot Suit Riots, an adaptation of Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, a politically charged drama based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case that rocked Los Angeles in 1942. The play follows a group of young males wrongly imprisoned for murder and depicts the racially fueled riots between Hispanic youths and white servicemen that consumes L.A. in the wake of their imprisonment. It's a big show with lots of Spanish dialogue, a few complicated musical numbers, many complex characters and combustible themes, from police brutality to cultural self-hatred. Grease, it is not.

That's what Mercado liked about it. He also liked that a production could feature delicious slang, cool music and lots of bad-ass costumes. With their bright colors, pegged pant legs and matching fedoras, the zoot-suiters would light up North's stage.

"Zoot Suit got a lot of people really inspired when it came out," says Mercado. "For me, it was the first time that I ever really learned about what had happened in L.A. The fact that this is history, that this is truth, really heightens the drama of the play."

But Zoot Suit had never been performed by a public high school troupe. And when Mercado announced that North would tackle it, some thought it was too big, too difficult, too adult for the school to handle.

"The attitude of some people was, 'We have no money, we can't do anything, and who are you, anyway?'" he says. "I have found a certain element that's ingrained: Screw you. This is North, so therefore there are no resources, and therefore the students are somehow less capable.

"My attitude was, I grew up in the ghetto and we didn't have any money, either," he continues. "But we didn't gloat about it. We'd dance in the streets. We found other ways to express talent."

Mercado believes that the sixteen student actors he's cast in speaking parts are capable of proving everyone wrong. Looking over the rehearsal schedule, which stretches into late April, he warns them all to prepare for weeks and weeks of hard work. If they're not ready to commit, he warns, they should leave now. Because by the next rehearsal, he wants them to have some idea of what they'll bring to their characters.

"Don't worry, Mercado. We have forever to get this down," says one boy. "We've got, like, two months."

"Yeah, well," Mercado says. "I promise you something: We'll need 'em."

According to the Viking yearbook staff, eighteen-year-old Emily Hare has the Best Personality, is the Most Outgoing, the Class Clown and the Most Dramatic student at North High School. Looked at in a certain way, she may be the Best Person in the Class of 2004, a group of nearly 400 students.

At the end of May, Emily will leave North for good; next fall she'll head off for college. But right now, she's everywhere. A senior, she's on the debate team and keeps the books for The North Star, the student newspaper. She's been in every theater production since her freshman year. Last spring she played a silly stepsister in Cinderella, a play directed by North's former drama teacher, Melissa Underwood.

Hare loved Underwood and was crushed when she moved into a position in the English department. And things got worse: Emily discovered she hated the new guy who'd been hired to replace her beloved teacher.

"I was pissed. I was mad. It was a big deal," she says. "I thought Mercado was a little bit cocky about his stardom or whatever. And I was pissed that he was bringing in all of this Mexican culture. I was tired of that. I was like, 'This is high school. We're supposed to have fun. Zoot Suit? I never heard of it. Let's do Singin' in the Rain.'"

Despite her misgivings, Hare, who is Hispanic, auditioned for Love, Laughter & Lagrimas and landed a spot in the ensemble. With Elvis Nuñez, a boy she knew from Cinderella, she improvised a vignette about a couple from Cherry Creek who move to the north side and have a hard time adjusting to all of the brown people. The scene was one of Love's funniest, and Mercado loved it. He encouraged Emily to come back and audition in the spring.

"It took until the end of that show for me to warm up to him," Emily says. "But he started giving me real motivation. I realized that he had a real passion to teach and that he was a good teacher. I think I was just hesitant toward him in the beginning; a lot of people were."

In Zoot Suit Riots, Emily plays Alice McGrath, a plucky newspaper reporter who leads a movement to free the young men imprisoned for the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Emily prepared for the role by watching old dame-walks-into-a-detective-agency-type films from the '40s. At first she thought she might like to play Lorena, the ingenue, a role that went to her friend, Ali Paulson. But Alice, who gives the play both its moral center and some comic relief, proved the more enticing challenge.

"It's the most difficult role I've ever had to play," Emily says. "Alice is somewhat like me -- she's either goofy or very adult. It's making me realize something about drama I didn't know before: It's scary, but it can start to show me who I am. It's like, by letting me be another character, it lets me be myself."

Over the past three weeks, Emily has been to every Zoot Suit Riots rehearsal and, by default, has taken on the role of an assistant director. Today she's leading five students through a warmup on North's auditorium stage. It's a familiar group. Next to Emily is Ali, a grade-school friend who works with her at a local coffee shop; then Ernest Apodaca, Ali's boyfriend; then Elvis, Ernest's best friend; then Austin Twaddle, Ernest's other best friend. The newest member is Addison Woodworth, a precariously tall sixteen-year-old sophomore who auditioned for the last spring's musical and, deciding he liked it, tried out again this year.

Standing in a circle, the six actors are shaking hands, kicking their feet and chanting. From the audience, the exercise looks like an epileptic version of "The Hokey Pokey." They're hopping around, making strange noises and doing precisely the thing teenagers supposedly live in fear of: acting free, being silly and totally uncool.

"We do some really goofy stuff," says Emily, "but it's good. The kids in this play are so diverse. I've known so many of them forever; I've watched them grow up and become so much more comfortable with themselves."

Emily is the star of the day's first scene -- her least favorite part of the entire show. Alice has come to visit Ernest's character, Henry, who's in prison in San Quentin for a crime he didn't commit. When she arrives, Henry tells her that he's no longer interested in her campaign to free him -- something she's dedicated her life to. It's an emotional exchange that requires Emily to scream, to come to the verge of tears, to throw a chair angrily across the room.

For Emily, the chair-throwing bit has been problematic.

"I've always played mostly comedy parts," she says. "Nobody's ever taken me that seriously to put me in another kind of role. It just feels so awkward to be yelling and screaming when I'm not really having a feeling to go along with it."

Mercado runs the scene three times, going over and over the trouble spot. Every time, Emily gets the dialogue but botches the throw.

She tries again.

"To hell with them!" she yells. "I hate them too!" But the chair stays put.

"I hate this part," says Emily.

"You should hate it," Mercado says. "You don't know what to say. You don't know what to do. When we don't know what to say, we stumble, and that's okay. Use that."

Emily takes it in.

"Okay," she says. "You want it, you're gonna get it. I'll throw the goddamn chair."

She takes a breath.

"To hell with them!" she yelps. "I hate them, too!" When she picks up the chair, she doesn't throw it. She bursts out laughing.

They move on.

Ali Paulson is sliding across the slick parquet stage in sweat socks, doing aerials, making Mercado extremely nervous.

"You're going to fall and mess up my show," Mercado warns her, only half-joking. "You can do one more. If you break your neck, I'm going to replace you."

But Ali doesn't fall. She never does. At seventeen, she's moon-faced and lovely, with highlighted hair that's either curly or straight, depending on her mood. Ali is almost always on -- the kind of girl that high school boys can't help watching, even when she does little more than walk down the aisle of the auditorium, flop down her backpack and stretch her long legs. Now, flipping around the stage and squealing, she's got the room riveted.

"Don't worry, Mercado!" she says, upside down. "I could do this all night!"

Ali, like Emily, has a schedule that requires almost all of her boundless energy. A member of Mercado's advanced acting class, she's on the yearbook staff, is a member of the cheer squad, and also works several days a week. In Zoot Suit, she plays Lorena, one of the female leads -- a role she landed even though she'd never been in a North production before.

"I'm a little bit nervous about it, because drama can be really competitive, and there's people who were in plays before who didn't get parts in this one," she says. "I wanted to do this play because it was, like, a little more mature. And acting has helped me be more mature. My freshman year, I was messing up a lot. I had to overcome a lot of stuff. My teachers helped turn me around -- they inspired me to get involved with acting."

Paulson is less than inspired by today's rehearsal, however. It's the third Wednesday in March, and she and Ernest are to practice one of Zoot Suit's most important moments, when Henry proposes marriage to Lorena. Before she accepts, they share a lingering kiss. This isn't such a big deal, since Ali and Ernest have been dating since February. What is a big deal is that they'll kiss in front of about twenty people. The scene is a flashback set inside another flashback -- a court scene that involves almost every member of the cast.

"Ali, don't worry about us, just stick with the moment," says Mercado.

"Easy for you to say, Mercado," she replies. "I don't like the moment in front of everybody. I'm afraid of the moment. The moment is scary."

For Ali, the scene presents several dilemmas. Like, what is my dad going to think of this? And, more vexing, how do you kiss someone for more than a few seconds without sticking your tongue in his mouth?

"It's a stage kiss, Ali. You don't use tongue in a stage kiss," Mercado says, scratching his head. "I can't believe I'm telling you how to do this."

When they run the scene again, the kiss is perfect: short, sweet and tongue-free.

"Mercado has helped me a lot," Ali says. "Sometimes you'll do a scene and he'll say, 'You know what? That was terrible.' And at first you think, 'Well, no, it wasn't.' But then you realize he was right, and you do it again, and it gets better. So you learn. You learn how to tap into and express an emotion, even when you don't want to."

Mercado calls a ten-minute break. Students scramble for their cell phones or the snacks they've stored in their backpacks. Ali heads back to the stage and sneaks in one more flip.

José Mercado's world has gotten a lot smaller since he came to North.

Most of his waking hours are spent in Room 141, the auditorium and the main office, where he makes coffee -- which he drinks constantly -- and Xerox copies, usually for students who've forgotten to bring their scripts.

Mercado rarely walks more than a few feet without someone stopping him for something. (Boy: Mercado, have you seen my missing keys? Girl: Mercado, do you know, if I leave cream cheese in my bag all day, will it go bad?) Today, a sunny Thursday before spring break, he has to break up a fight between two girls. As Mercado leads them by the elbows to the security office, baby-faced boys wearing skullcaps and petite, honey-skinned girls in low-slung jeans call to him:

Hey, Mercado!

Hey, Mister!

Hey, ese! GET 'EM, ESE!

"José may be the best thing that's ever happened to North. The kids love him," says Julie Rendon, North's receptionist. "He's so young; he's got the energy for it. He's always running around the hallways. I have to wave my finger at him to let him know when he has messages.

"I think some of the girls, they have crushes on him," she continues. "He's a good-looking guy, too, no? It's a good thing to have a crush on your teacher. It makes you come to class."

Mercado hadn't planned on becoming a high school teacher. A year ago he was living in Los Angeles, in an apartment just off the Sunset Strip. He had an agent, a master's degree from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, and a job teaching acting to undergraduates. L.A. had been good to him. Since leaving Colorado for California in 1997, he'd scored a few small film roles -- including Luminarias, with Cheech Marin, and Hidalgo, the Viggo Mortensen epic -- and landed a spot in an acting collective that included Megan Mullally, better known as the oversexed snob Karen on Will & Grace. When his mother, Rose Garcia, flew from Greeley to see him in the opening-night performance of Wit -- a production that the L.A. Weekly called the best of 2000 -- she was seated directly in front of Tom Hanks, then sporting the skeletal frame and gigantic beard he acquired for Castaway.

"I loved L.A.," Mercado says. "I adapted to the lifestyle very quickly. It was a place that I never saw myself leaving."

But life took a turn in the spring of 2003. Rose, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, was losing the battle. Mercado was wrapping up production on a big show with Mullally when doctors told the family to prepare for the worst. Rose told her son to finish the show, then come to see her; she'd wait for him. The morning after closing night, Easter Sunday, Mercado was at LAX waiting to board a plane to Denver when he called his sister and learned that Rose had died about an hour earlier.

Mercado flew home and spent six weeks in Greeley, where he'd grown up with his three older sisters. When he finally got back to California, he discovered that Hollywood couldn't wait for him, either. He'd lost his agent, as well as his taste for the city.

"L.A. is not a place to be if you don't have your stuff together," he says. "In a way, my mom dying made me consider what my overall role should be -- as an actor, as a human being. I'd had seven years of being selfish, having a selfish career as an actor. I wanted to do something else, to find a place where I could do some good."

That place, as it turned out, was North.

Since Zoot Suit Riots rehearsals began in late February, Mercado has typically been at the school ten to twelve hours a day, and sometimes on weekends. The production has ballooned with each passing day. Mercado has hired two professional actors, friends from El Centro Su Teatro, to work with the students. Suavecito's, a local company that makes custom zoot suits, has been tapped to design costumes. Carlos Frésquez, an artist and educator, is providing the stage backdrops and posters. Mercado has planned fundraising events and found a corporate sponsor, American Family Insurance, to underwrite some of the play's expenses -- like the giant rotating turntable that will be the centerpiece of the stage.

"José wants so badly to see this come to fruition, and he'll do whatever it takes to make this funding happen," says Angelique Acevedo-Barron, North's assistant principal. "When I was teaching art, I'd spend my own personal money to buy materials all the time. The arts are always underfunded, because they're not seen as part of the core: reading, writing, math and science. So that's just what it takes. That's what good teachers have to 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.

"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."

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.

"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.'"

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't...show...up."

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.

"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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