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'You are invited here and you are safe here': Local director casting Hispanic community members in upcoming production

Peoria Players Facebook

A local theater director is bringing a Tony award-winning musical to the stage in Peoria, but with a greater mission than to entertain and dazzle audiences.

Deric Kimler will be directing In The Heights by Lin Manuel-Miranda at Peoria Players Theatre. The show follows the story of Usnavi de la Vega, owner of a bodega in Washington Heights, a neighborhood situated in the uppermost part of the New York City borough of Manhattan, and the rest of the Hispanic community that resides there.

Kimler, also executive director of Central Illinois Friends, has many previous directing credits in the area, including Bare: A Pop Opera, Rent, Fun Home, Parade, and Kinky Boots. To Kimler, all these productions share a common theme.

“I set out specifically to direct shows, or a show or shows, that wouldn't have been done if I weren't here… I feel that every single show I set out to do, it's with the purpose to invite others in. We are a community theater and we should represent the community,” explained Kimler.

Deric Kimler, director of 'In The Heights'
Jody Holtz
Deric Kimler, director of 'In The Heights'

He said he commonly hears that community theaters in the Peoria area aren’t selling as many season tickets, aren’t seeing as many volunteers, and overall are noticing a decrease in involvement.

“But I also don't see our theaters doing shows that would increase diversity, or encourage people who don't come out, to come out. And so the idea is, if we can do In The Heights, we can not only 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 all, everybody who resides in it. No matter who you are, no matter what boxes you check, you are invited here and you are safe here,” said Kimler.

Kimler also stressed the importance of providing people with a chance to tell their own stories, something that historically hasn’t happened in the Peoria area.

“You wouldn't want a show about women's empowerment to be completely done by men. You wouldn't want a show about the struggles of the Black community in the United States done by only White people, right? You need to be able to have people tell their story. And traditionally, in Peoria, non-Hispanic people play Hispanic roles,” Kimler said.

That’s why Kimler is looking to get Hispanic people in the area involved in the show both on and off stage — something he acknowledged will be a struggle from multiple angles.

“It’s hard because first and foremost, we need a Hispanic population to come out,” said Kimler. “Secondly, we have to educate our public the difference between ethnicity and race, because a lot of individuals will come up to me and talk to me about race not being involved in this show, when in all reality, people are Hispanic and White, they're Hispanic and Black, they're Hispanic and Native, they're Hispanic and Asian.

"And if you really want to get down to the roots, this show is about Caribbean Hispanic. And so the idea is to include and show diversity within the Hispanic community, not just say, oh, if you're Hispanic, you're involved. No, let's show the diversity that also exists in our Peoria Hispanic community.”

Kimler also noted the play's themes speak to many issues members of the Peoria community may identify with, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, generational pain specific to immigrants, and what it means to be an American.

“This touches on a lot of those struggles that people face today, whether they're born and raised here, and their parents were born and raised here, and their grandparents are born and raised here," he said. "Because of the toxicity that surrounds the Hispanic culture right now in our entire nation, let alone Peoria, Illinois, the struggle is very much alive and well in Peoria… but Peoria has a thriving Hispanic community that's beautiful and doing great things and building this community back stronger, and better. And we can't do it without all of us. And so I'm hopeful that we can share this on a stage with the rest of Peoria to say, look, this is part of our community as well.”

The show is set 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 that everyone who wants to be involved can get involved,” explained Kimler.

As a non-Hispanic person himself, Kimler wants to make it known what his role as director will be throughout the production.

“There's a reason why I'm directing this. That's my job. My job is to make sure that people who don't know theater, find out how theater is. My job is to step aside culturally, but to allow a place and space and use my knowledge and my privilege to be able to provide a stage, literally, to the Hispanic population.”

Kimler is asking anyone who is Hispanic or has ties to the Hispanic community and wants to be involved with In The Heights to reach out to him directly at deric.kimler@gmail.com. He said if the original audition weekends don’t work for someone’s schedule, he will make something else work.

More information can be found on the audition Facebook page.

“This is your home, this is your place," said Kimler. "And I want so badly to be able to say to the Hispanic community, this too is your home. I want you to take ownership of this, take authorship of this, take significance in this and start to love theater just as much as the other communities are. Because if you don't tell your own story, you leave it up to someone else to.”

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.