High school musical theater in the U.S. is glaringly white. At least the written material is.
Among Playbill’s Top 20 most-performed high school musicals you’d be hard pressed to find a lead role written for a person of color (unless you count Shrek, who is green).
San Antonio Independent School District’s interscholastic theater production of Cenicienta, a Quinceañera with a taste of Cinderella is taking a step, or perhaps a waltz, in a different direction. With live mariachi accompaniment, “Ceni” makes its world premier May 27-29. The play opens on May 27 at 7pm at Lanier High School. Tickets will be sold at the door for a suggested $5 donation. On May 28th, 7pm, and 29th at 3pm and 7pm, the show moves to Edison High School, and tickets are $8 at the door.
The production aims to fill a gap in high school theater felt strongly by so-called "majority-minority" schools as they grow increasingly common.
People of non-white Hispanic origin make up the largest minority in the U.S. and the most quickly growing. Right now the group accounts for 17% of the population and is projected to grow significantly by the year 2050.
Of the current 17%, nearly one-third are under age 18. Of Hispanic people under age 18, 69% are Mexican according to the Pew Research Center. Conclusion: there are a lot of Hispanic students, Mexican-Americans in particular, in U.S. schools.
It stands to reason then that high school theater productions are going to have a lot of cultural modifications to turn out satisfying productions of shows like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Footloose, all among the most popular musicals for high school theater.
In fact, unless you count the Puerto Rican gang from West Side Story, it’s not easy to find roles for entire casts of Hispanic students in musical theater. While theater has embraced “color-blind” casting, characters and stories always have the most relevance within their intended cultures.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights has come onto the scene in a strong way in recent years. Miranda celebrates the significance Hispanic characters and stories for Hispanic students.
“When I see a school with a huge Latino population do Heights, I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives,” Miranda told Howard Sherman in a 2015 interview.
When she was working in SAISD, former music teacher Pamela Redman felt that the Mexican-American experience was conspicuously missing from the high school musical repertoire. She wanted something for her students in their 96% Hispanic school settings.
Redman wrote Cenicienta, a Quinceañera with a taste of Cinderella with her students in mind.
“While teaching at Mark Twain Middle School and accompanying the musicals at Jefferson High School – when it was the performing arts high school – I realized that there was not a musical for our Hispanic students to perform that celebrated their culture, their traditions, their music, and their dance,” Redman said.
The play is a Cinderella story based around the values and traditions of Hispanic culture. Redman sent the book to Federico Chavez-Blanco, an accomplished composer in Mexico and the U.S.
“I was totally hooked on the story,” said Chavez-Blanco.
He set to work on the book, aligning plot points and characters to fit authentic Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Anyone with a connection to a Hispanic culture from the Philippines to Mexico to Argentina will be able to relate to at least one character on the stage, Chavez-Blanco said.
Ceni is not simply Cinderella as we know it in Mexican costumes. Even beyond the centrality of the quniceañera itself, the plot is driven by the values of Hispanic culture.
Scoring the play to mariachi music was a challenging decision. Mariachi music is made for the Spanish language. The tempo is an unusual match for musical theater. Incorporating it into a bilingual score required intense collaboration. Chavez-Blanco bartered with respected professional mariachis to help him make demos of the score.
He wants to see mariachi music freed from the tokenism of River Walk restaurant serenades and incidental fixtures at corporate events. SAISD’s robust programming is doing a good job entrusting the art of mariachi to a new generation.
In the play, the mariachi’s serve as the Greek chorus, sometimes integrated into the scene, and sometimes invisibly providing background. They will play salsa, cumbia, and of course a waltz for the quinceañera.
While the students in the production and the audience obviously listen to a wide range of music, the Latin score will easily connect to the theme of family. From grandmothers’ kitchens to backyard barbeques, it is likely woven through their childhood.
After a 2014 workshop with Thirteen O’Clock Theater in the Rio Grande Valley, Chavez-Blanco was able to compile the necessary material to apply for grants he needed to fine tune the production. In 2015 he received a $5,400 grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) to complete the music for the show. The City of San Antonio’s Department for Culture and Creative Development and the Puffin Foundation also supported the production.
Mariachis from Brackenridge High School, Lanier High School and the San Antonio Mariachi Academy will perform with the actors from Edison High School and Lanier High School.
Originally, the play was intended for Edison’s theater department, but when Ibarra saw the bilingual script, she immediately thought of her former students at Lanier. From there, the interscholastic cooperation grew.
“This is perfect for the student population of Lanier because so many of them come from bilingual backgrounds,” Ibarra said.
For Chavez-Blanco, it was imperative that the characters act in accordance with familiar cultural values.
In the play, Ceni’s stepmother appeals to a wealthy relative to give her twin daughters’ a quinceañera, blatantly ignoring Ceni. The uncle agrees, only later to find that Ceni is the rightful recipient of his generosity. Rather than casting the twins aside, the uncle fulfills his commitment to all three girls, and justice metes itself out through more creative means.
The play also feels distinctly Hispanic as art. The parents of young Ceni appear as ghosts without explanation or justification, a nod to the magical realism of pan-American story. Songs are sung in English and Spanish with great facility.
“The kids are defeating that barrier, that punishment that was imposed on previous generations for speaking Spanish,” Chavez-Blanco said.
The awkward excitement of fifteen-year-old girls comes across as authentically adolescent, rather than acted. According to Ibarra, the whole atmosphere was easy to recreate, because the cast seemed to be attending actual quinceañeras weekly.
Chavez-Blanco hopes to engage the students of SAISD, as well the Hispanic theater community across the United States. Ceni is built to scale with two versions: one built for high school casts, and one for professional theater companies.
Top image: Desiree Gonzales of Lanier High School, who plays Cenicienta, acts out doing the household chores. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone