By Jeff Walsh
Like many people, I first saw Robin De Jesus when he played the lead role in the movie Camp, which continues to be one of my favorite gay movies. The movie features teens dealing with their emotions, crushes, and sexualities at a summer camp that puts on different plays and musicals the whole time. I felt that he was the heart of the movie, and beautifully captured the awkwardness of that age.
Since that time, I've kept tabs on Robin, seeing if he's in any shows whenever I'm planning to go to New York City and such. This past trip, when I saw the Rent theater, for a moment, I wondered if he was still in the company, but I already had tickets for other shows.
The day before I flew back west to San Francisco, Robin posted a bulletin on MySpace that previews for the new show he's in were starting the following day, so while I was landing in Oakland, he was performing in "In The Heights" at the first preview. The show opens tonight Off-Broadway (Break a leg tonight, Robin!) and sounds like a fun night out at the theater. I'll let you know in a few months.
Your first preview performance was on the day I was flying home from being on the east coast. I normally see the shows before I talk to people, but this time I have to start with the horrible journalist question, "So, what's the show about?"
It's a very simple story. It takes place in a bodega, like a store. Do you know what a bodega is, by chance?
A bodega is like, in New York and a lot of other cities, especially where there is a large Hispanic population, little corner stores. So, it's a bodega in Washington Heights, which is a part of Manhattan on the north end, where a lot of Hispanics lives. It's Fourth of July weekend in this bodega and it's basically three different locations on this one street. The bodega, a hair salon, and a taxi dispatch. And there's all this chaos that ensues in this weekend.
There's love stories, and one of the big plots is a lottery ticket has been sold from the bodega and somebody won, so everyone's trying to find out who won the lottery. It's like $96,000, which for this area is an insane amount of money. And then there's one girl whose family owns the taxi dispatch and she comes home from college, from Stanford University. She's like the one girl from the ghetto who got out and is doing better. And she comes home to tell her family that she's not going to go back because she knows they're struggling to afford it. And all this chaos ensues because her father refuses to accept the fact that he can't afford to put his daughter through college.
So there's that plot, and then there's the bodega owner, he's like the lead, he had sold the winning ticket from the lottery. And he sells it to this woman ... she's this older Cuban woman who's lived in New York for a very long time, and she's symbolically the grandmother of the neighborhood. So, you find out in the first act that she's the one who won the lotto. I don't want to give away the ending, but there are many stories, but it works in the sense that you're getting a sense of what it's like to be in this incredibly overpopulated area of New York with all these stories and everyone knows each other.
And who is Sonny in the middle of all this?
Sonny's cousin is the one who owns the store. He's kind of this little kid who grew up in the neighborhood. He's 16 years old. He's like the kid that everyone's trying to save from getting in trouble, because if you just leave him out there in the neighborhood, he's going to do something wrong. So, he works in the bodega when he's not in school. He's totally the comedic relief. He's like the kid who's always saying something stupid. He's probably a Socialist. He's all about helping the community and while everyone's talking about what they would do with this money, he's the one who's like, 'I would take over the community, start a community center, start better education in the school system, yada yada yada.' He's kind of like this little kid with overly grandiose ideals. But with this Che Guevara attitude that he has, and the anger that he has, he's hilarious. He's a mess, actually.
So, you're having a lot of fun with it?
Oh my God, I'm having so much fun. It's probably my favorite role to date. I think it is, because .. you know what it is, with this show? There's so much I can relate to on so many more levels than anything else I've ever done before. I just know who everyone is, and this character in particular, he is very similar in many ways to me, I think.
And it's only one week to opening night.
Yep, one week. We actually just froze the show yesterday. So there's no more changes, yesterday was our first show knowing what it's going to be, from now on, this is it. So we're just easing into it, and trying to make ourselves feel more comfortable, finding that rhythm.
So, you were in Rent before, and there you go in and everyone has an expectation of what Angel is, but you get to define who Sonny is. Is that better for you as an actor?
I hate to say it, but it is more satisfying to come in and originate, because there is an expectation and on Broadway, many times there are limitations, especially in a show that's well-known like, in Rent, you had liberties, but to an extent. There are certain boundaries. I hate to stay in boundaries, in most aspects, so it's one of those things where I just wanted to rebel. I totally wanted to rebel. I knew I couldn't, because it's my job, but I wanted to. And it was also weird, because I wasn't the official Angel. I was the understudy. So, there were even more boundaries by what the person who does it full-time, what do they do, as well. Their interpretation of Angel. It's also difficult because, as an actor, I'm a different being than someone else. Two people who are so different will do a role completely different and still get the same point in there. So, it's difficult for some people to understand that different actors doing the same role have to go about it different ways, just because of who they are and how they come across.
Well, like when you're originating Sonny, a lot of it is going to be Robin, and in a year or so when you go on to do something else, the person cast then will be cast to play Robin playing Sonny to some extent.
And, with this show, I've been involved with it for a little over a year and a half now, so they've been rewriting it, and a lot of it was rewritten after I came in. So, it's definitely been Robinified, if you will. So, I hate to say this, but I do very much feel like this is my role. It is very similar to how I behave on a stupid day. (laughs).