“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.