It was just a spring musical — a ritual, like homecoming, familiar at nearly every high school in the United States. But when the lights came up on Zoot Suit Riots at North High in May 2004, they revealed a very special show.
The twenty teenagers who made up the cast of Zoot Suit Riots had traded basketball games, parties, dates and studies for rehearsal time. They'd eaten dinner between scenes, often chips from a vending machine or a pizza brought in by a mom; they'd sometimes done their homework. They'd learned and botched dance numbers, fallen down, broken character. They'd run their lines a hundred times, drilled them into their squirmy teenage brains. They'd moved each other to tears.
After rehearsal, they'd often gone straight to bed, exhausted. Other nights they'd met up at somebody's house, talking about the play over beers that someone's older cousin had bought at a liquor store on Tejon or Zuni, the back roads of the north side.
Tensions were high on opening night. The sets smelled of wet paint. One of the male leads, Elvis Nuñez, was still walking with a minor limp after getting into a car accident one reckless night after rehearsal. Expectations were high, too: Westword had featured two of the young actors on the cover of the April 22, 2004, issue.
All three performances wound up selling out — a first in North High history. The play drew parents and grandparents, local business owners and Denver City Council members. The following year, a reprise of Zoot Suit Riots became the first high-school production ever staged at the Buell Theatre in downtown Denver, a venue normally occupied by big-budget touring Broadway shows. Nuñez, the boy with the limp, wound up in the New York Times. And the year after that, some of the cast members from this poor, inner-city school traveled to Scotland for the largest high-school theater festival in the world.
The young performers didn't know what would lie ahead when the final curtain came down on Zoot Suit Riots. They just knew that they were somehow different. So was their school. So was their neighborhood. And so were their futures.
At age 29, José Antonio Mercado had worked hard to put distance between the poverty and struggles of his childhood in Greeley and his current reality as a recent graduate of the master's program in theater arts at UCLA. He'd already caught a few great breaks on stage in Los Angeles: a role in Wit and one in Mayhem, with Megan Mullally, for example. The city suited him. During the week he studied and worked with his role models; on weekends he saw shows and danced salsa.
In 2003, though, Mercado had to quickly return to Colorado when his mother, Rosa, succumbed to breast cancer after a long illness. Rosa had raised him as a single parent, and her death stripped him of the most meaningful relationship in his life. When he learned of an opening in the drama department at North High School, he applied, somewhat on a whim. The job would keep him busy while he dealt with his grief and tied up his mother's affairs. He planned to stay in Denver for a year, tops.
"Being a high-school teacher was the furthest thing from my mind," Mercado says. "I knew that with an MFA, teaching at a university was probably going to be part of it. But I wanted to be a professional actor. That was fully my plan."
But the North job was immediately consuming. The school was a crowded, bustling ecosystem with more than 1,600 students; it had seen a series of administrative shakeups and regularly underperformed on district assessments. With no formal training or experience as a public-school teacher, Mercado was assigned to teach drama as well as American literature. He constructed classes around his favorite authors and playwrights, starting with Shakespeare and moving into contemporary Latino authors.
"The students reminded me of myself," says Mercado, now 39. "I was a young teacher by comparison to many of the other teachers at the time. I was only ten years older than most of the students. I was just like those young kids, with so many dreams. My parents had a sixth-grade education. My dad was an illegal immigrant. I didn't have someone on a daily basis telling me to do my homework, and neither did these kids."
When it came time to choose the spring production for those kids, Mercado selected Zoot Suit Riots.
The musical, by Luis Valdez, had never been performed at a high school. The decidedly mature script, based on the true story of a racially charged murder case in Los Angeles that pitted young Hispanics against police in 1942, had great characters — strong Chicano voices for both males and females — and explored violence, racism, police brutality and institutional injustice, all themes Mercado saw as ripe for exploration at an inner-city high school, where close to 90 percent of the students were of Mexican descent, and nearly as many were poor.