Hector Flores, the new director of 'In The Heights' at Mill Mountain Theatre, which now opens April 13. Courtesy of Hector Flores.

Hector Flores, Jr. was in the wings of “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theatre in New York last week when he got the call from Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke — their production of “In the Heights” needed a new director and they wanted him for the job. 

Three days later he was in Roanoke with the full cast, inherited scenery and costumes and tasked with opening the show in just over two weeks. 

Mill Mountain Theatre, Roanoke’s professional regional theater, announced it was opening its 2022 season with the show but after being accused of whitewashing the character of Vanessa by casting a white actress for a Latina role. The actress and director stepped down after backlash from the cast who, upon arriving on March 14 for rehearsals, spoke out. Initially, the theater toyed with canceling the production altogether before recasting and finding a new director. Flores said he doesn’t know who the original team was, and doesn’t want to, he simply wants to move on and up with the show. 

The opening has been pushed back a week to allow rehearsal and will now run April 13-24.

It’s an uncommon tale in the theatre world, where shows take months to choose, cast and rehearse. But if he could pull it together with any play, Flores said “In the Heights” would be it. He calls to two repeated refrains from the show “¡No pares, sigue, sigue!”which translates to don’t stop, go on; and “paciencia y fe,” meaning patience and faith. 

“It’s what we Latino people face in America,” Flores said. “We have to keep going and rise to the challenge. We go into a room and are underestimated time and time again, but we keep the patience and the faith.”

“In the Heights” opened on Broadway on 2008 after a successful run and was nominated for 13 Tony awards, winning four. By Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the story is set over the course of three days, in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The film adaptation was released last year.

Multiple members of the cast spoke out on social media about the issues of casting in the play and the ups and downs of cancellation.

Cast member Sean Royal was one of those and tweeted at Miranda about the show’s initial cancellation:

“@Lin_Manuel, thought you’d like to know that Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, VA just cancelled its production of In The Heights because the production/creative team and board decided to fire all of us because we spoke out against them casting a white woman as Vanessa.”

He continued to updated followers about the situation and put out the call for a new director on Twitter:

“UPDATE #5: SO! The board has agreed to continue with the show. However, we need an entirely new creative team, Director, Choreographer, and Music Director. We as a cast agreed that we want a Latin Director and Choreographer, and preferably a POC Music Director.”

Flores saw one of these posts on social media about the theater hiring a new director, and one of his mentors Luis Salgado — who was in the original Broadway cast of “In the Heights” — tagged him and prompted him to apply.

He applied by email and got a call five minutes later. Getting to Roanoke wasn’t an easy task, though. After leaving late Tuesday evening from LaGuardia Airport, the fog in Roanoke was too heavy to land. The pilot had to return to New York, and he caught another flight in the early hours of Wednesday morning. He went straight from the airport to the theatre and directly into choreography with the cast. 

He knows the show and is actually associate director/choreographer of another production of it at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, opening in late April. That means he’ll have to hand over the production at Mill Mountain to his associate director and choreographer Michael Anthony Sylvester. He said he’s glad to do the hard work of getting the show ready and is also confident in new music director John Daniels, who he just met Saturday. 

Speaking about the show, he said “there’s a tremendous amount of music and choreography.” According to Flores, it’s a show that “lives and breathes” and benefits from artistic direction by the people who were formed in the same kind of neighborhoods, with these cultural influences, and this music. In other words, only a Latino could pull this off in such a short time frame. But he’s used to getting ahead by using what he called his the “three R’s: resourcefulness, resilience and relentlessness.”

“It is imperative to have Latinos telling a Latino story,” he said. “When you have others telling people what ‘Latino’ is, it becomes whitewashed. That’s how misconceptions and stereotypes are spread. But authentic representation makes all the difference. We are seen as equals. The narratives of Latinos are tightly woven into the fabric of this country. But it’s not viewed as such.”

Flores said he’s extremely proud of the cast for standing up for Latino representation. 

And while it’s very much a story about the barrio, he said it’s also a tale that audiences around the U.S. can appreciate because “at its core about the power of home and what home means.”

See previous story about the controversy that led to the show being briefly cancelled, then brought back.

Lindley Estes is a reporter and editor originally from Southside's Lunenburg County, but now based in...