Washington Heights is a vibrant, changing, struggling community at the northern end of Manhattan Island that is occasionally walloped by Con Ed blackouts during unendurable heat waves, only to be jolted in a far happier way when somebody hits the lottery.
Just such a fabulous lottery ticket is a dramatic pivot in In the Heights, a life-affirming Latin American Street Scene about Washington Heights by two young people named Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics, he also plays the lead) and Quiara Alegria Hudes (the book).
"My abuela — my grandmother Edmunda — played the lottery every single day," says Lin-Manuel Miranda, "and once in a while she'd hit it for a small amount. Well, she wasn't my real grandmother, who was in Puerto Rico; she was the caretaker who raised me while my parents were working, and every day she would take me to the bodega where they sold lotto tickets and had illegal slot machines in the back room. One of my first memories is pulling down the handle on a slot machine."
The character he portrays in the show at 37 Arts Theatre is Usnavi (pronounced Ooos-nah-vee) de la Vega, 24-year-old owner of the De La Vega Bodega. Usnavi is a name derived from the U.S. Navy that immigrants might see stenciled on the hulls of vessels in New York harbor. Lin-Manuel's own not-too-common name "is something my dad" — Luis Miranda, onetime special Hispanic-affairs adviser to Mayor Koch — "got out of some poem." Usnavi, in the show, has a remarkable abuela of his own. He also has a fistful of survival problems — as does the light of his life, 19-year-old Nina Rosario, a Stanford University junior who is about to quit school to keep her parents, the owners of a struggling taxi and limousine service, from going even more hopelessly into debt to push her through to graduation.
Quiara Alegria Hudes hails from the North Philadelphia equivalent of Washington Heights; her first name is an adaptation of the Spanish word for love; her universities were Yale and Brown; her mother and stepfather are small-business entrepreneurs in Philadelphia; her biological father is Jewish American; her husband Ray Beauchamp — father of an "original production" due to arrive two weeks after the February opening of In the Heights — is a third-year law student at Fordham.
For all that, if you ask: "This Nina, in the show — is that you?" playwright Hudes has been known to respond: "It could be said." But then: "When my mother's mother came to New York from Puerto Rico with a bunch of kids, they all went out to buy some avocados. When they came back, everything they owned had been stolen." Education begins at home.
And Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up just off Dyckman Street and whose score has its seeds in salsa, merengue, hip-hop and the Broadway theatre music his psychologist mom used to blast out at full volume on the car radio? He lives to this day a little farther out, near the last stop (207th Street) on the A train.