Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Changing Landscape of Home - Pasha Yamotahari and Phoenix Theatre's IN THE HEIGHTS

Pasha Yamotahari
in Phoenix Theatre's In the Heights
photo by Reg Madison Photography
by Jennifer Haaland

Folks at Phoenix Theatre feel at home with Pasha Yamotahari.  For years he's been the resident dramaturge, directed shows, even adopted and trained Toto a while back so the little dog could help remind us there's no place like home. Now, Yamotahari has the chance as leading man Usnavi from In the Heights to open Phoenix Theatre's 2016-17 season. And to close the door on bygone notions of home.

"We have these general pockets of ethnic backgrounds in downtown Phoenix.  They're little gems of culture and art for locals," Yamotahari says, in tune to the prospect of gentrification that can accompany urban renewal projects. "Then the risk of being exiled from that community arises.  It happened in Toronto, too, my home city."

Spoken like a guy who's known what it is to feel a little displaced, he likens the current Phoenix scenario to In the Heights. The kaleidoscopic story tells about the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City.  Like bright hot fireworks, the show's colorful immigrant characters burn with an intense energy to belong. It explodes in a marvel of non-stop hip-hop and rap.

"When we're presented with a conflict of place, do we celebrate the home we left? Hide it? It's an opportunity for the Melting Pot idea to become more of a cultural mosaic," he suggests.

A true man of the world, Yamotahari's first language is Farsi, having been born in Iran. He was in France as a schoolboy and then Italy, assuming those languages and assimilating into the European culture before he took up English when he learned to call Toronto home.

"My personal journey is similar to those coming from the South to become citizens. We are so close to Mexico, and they come here because the beautiful principles of the Constitution spark hope. I imagine third world immigrants come to the Phoenix community for the promise of good pay or for education, but they may never stop hoping to go back home," Yamotahari speculates. He continues drawing another show parallel, noting "Usnavi is so intent on returning to the Dominican Republic that he can't envision a different idea of home."

It's a timely examination for the Phoenix community to consider. Like quicksand underfoot, the home we know can erode and shift, even as we're clinging to it.  Yamotahari and Usnavi both however eventually recognized the powerful potential a shift might hold.

Alyssa Chiarello, Chanel Bragg, Pasha Yamotahari, Nick Flores
in Phoenix Theatre's In the Heights
photo by Reg Madison Photography
"At first, I think I had a fear of being judged just for being different rather than feeling free to celebrate my roots. When you start accepting who you are, you're able to recognize what you mean to your community," he says.

 "The rebirth of the downtown corridor reflects a personalized sense of culture and heritage that the arts are promoting. The influx of students helps express what's happening, too. All of downtown, even the architecture, is getting an identity and beginning to celebrate how home has made us who we are."

Of course, another reason to celebrate In the Heights is that it's a Lin Manuel Miranda show. The actor, playwright and composer of Puerto Rican heritage took New York by storm with the birth of Hamilton on Broadway--for the second time. His FIRST Best Musical Tony was for In the Heights, 2008.  Miranda, who wrote and originated Yamotahari's leading role fashioned both musicals around rap narratives, a new path for the musical theatre genre.

Pasha Yamotahari in
Shear Madness - Phoenix Theatre - 2014
photos: Erin Evangeline Photography 
"When I was a kid, my friends and I could let off steam or just tell stories the same way," Yamotahari relates. "We'd hang out behind the school, lay a beat down and start taking turns using our French rap."

"Anyone able to set the standard in a way that hasn't been explored, like Miranda did using hip hop to tell a narrative, is brilliant," says Yamotahari, dubbing Miranda a pioneer.

The timing seems perfect for Phoenix in Yamotahari's mind. Like a mantra of home and hope, conflicted stories leap off the Phoenix Theatre stage during every number of In the Heights.  There's celebration in learning to release our bottled-up culture.

It was a long time coming, but Yamotahari can finally say, "Home is wherever I am. It's what and where I make it."

"This show works so well," he concludes, "because every primary character--mine, Benny, Vanessa, Nina--we all have this underlying scream that fuels our move toward or our acceptance of home."

1 comment:

  1. Pasha nailed Usnavi....he would make Miranda proud...we've been subscribers for the past 10 yrs and won't see 70 yrs of age again so it was very refreshing that the two young ladies seated next to us, who have never been to the Phoenix Theater before, were crying at the end of yesterday's show and told me they would very likely become subscribers....well done to the entire cast...