A local theater director brings a Tony Award-winning musical to the stage in Peoria, but with a bigger mission than entertaining and impressing audiences.
Directed by Deric Kimler in the heights by Lin Manuel Miranda Peoria Players Theater. The show follows the story of Usnavi de la Vega, owner of a bodega in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in the top part of New York’s borough of Manhattan, and the rest of the Hispanic community who live there.
Kimler, also Managing Director of Friends from Central Illinoishas many previous directorial works in this field, including Naked: A Pop Opera, Rent, Fun House, Parade, and Kinky boots. For Kimler, all of these productions share a common theme.
“I specifically set out on a journey of directing shows, or a show or shows that wouldn’t have been done if I wasn’t here … I feel like every single show I do is done with purpose.” is to invite others. We’re a community theater and we should represent the community,” Kimler explained.
He said he frequently hears that community theaters in the Peoria area aren’t selling as many season tickets, aren’t seeing as many volunteers, and are seeing an overall drop in engagement.
“But I also don’t see any shows in our theaters that would increase diversity or encourage people who don’t come out to come out. And so the idea is if we can do that in the heights, not only can we represent a population that has traditionally never been represented in our communities, we can finally stand up as a community theater and say, hey, our community represents everyone, everyone who lives in it. No matter who you are, no matter what boxes you tick, you are invited here and you are safe here,” Kimler said.
Kimler also stressed the importance of giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories, something that historically hasn’t happened in the Peoria area.
“You wouldn’t want a show about female empowerment to be done entirely by men. You wouldn’t want a white-only show about the struggles of the black community in the United States, would you? You must be able to get people to tell their story. And traditionally in Peoria, non-Hispanic characters play Hispanic roles,” Kimler said.
For that reason, Kimler is trying to include Hispanic people in the area in the show both on and offstage — something he acknowledges will be a struggle from multiple angles.
“It’s hard because we need a Hispanic population first and foremost to get out,” Kimler said. “Second, we need to educate our audience about the difference between ethnicity and race, because many individuals will come up to me and talk to me about the fact that race is not involved on this show, when in fact the people are Hispanic and White. They’re Hispanic and Black, they’re Hispanic and Native American, they’re Hispanic and Asian.
“And if you really want to get to your roots, this show is about Caribbean Hispanics. So the idea is to include and show diversity within the Hispanic community, not just say oh if you’re Hispanic, you are. No, let’s show the diversity that also exists in our Hispanic community in Peoria.”
Kimler also noted that the play’s themes address many issues that members of the Peoria community may identify with, such as the delayed action for the arrival of children (DACA) program, generational pains specific to immigrants, and what it means to be an American.
“This touches on a lot of the struggles people face today, whether they were born and raised here, their parents were born and raised here, and their grandparents were born and raised here,” he said. “Because of the toxicity that is surrounding Hispanic culture right now across our nation, let alone Peoria, Illinois, the struggle is very much alive and well in Peoria … but Peoria has a thriving Hispanic community that is beautiful and doing great things and build this community stronger again better. And we can’t do it without all of us. And so I’m hoping that we can share this on a stage with the rest of Peoria to say, look, this is a part of our community, too.”
The show is scheduled to open in March, but Kimler is holding auditions the last two weekends of October, which is much earlier than most productions.
“Because I want to make sure everyone who wants to get involved can get involved,” explains Kimler.
Not being Hispanic himself, Kimler wishes to announce what his role as director will be throughout the production.
“There’s a reason I’m directing here. This is my job. My job is to make sure people who don’t know theater find out what theater is like. My job is to step aside culturally, but create a place and space and use my knowledge and privilege to literally offer a stage to the Hispanic community.”
Kimler is asking anyone who is Hispanic or has ties to the Hispanic community who would like to participate in the heights to reach him directly [email protected]. He said if the original audition weekends don’t fit into someone’s schedule, he’ll make something else work.
More information can be found at the audition Facebook site.
“This is your home, this is your place,” Kimler said. “And I want so badly to be able to say to the Hispanic community that this is your home too. I want you to take ownership of it, take ownership, take ownership of it, and start loving theater as much as the other communities do. Because if you don’t tell your own story, you’re letting someone else do it.”