If you had told Jose Mercado 10 years ago that today he would be a professor directing theater at the University of Colorado Denver, he would have said you were crazy. At that time, he was more than a thousand miles away from Denver, in Los Angeles and focused on one thing: acting.
- During the most passionate scenes, audience members are treated to the original Spanish from Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 drama.
- The production utilizes a rarely-used English translation rediscovered in America more than 50 years after it was written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes in 1938.
- The bilingual students in the diverse cast capitalize on their ability to move seamlessly between languages to honor Lorca’s poetic verse.
Cow town to Tinseltown
Mercado is bilingual himself. His father is from Mexico, his mother is from New Mexico, and he grew up in Greeley, Colo. His mother did most of the parenting, and he remembers working alongside her in the vegetable fields.
He went off to college at the University of Colorado Boulder and, during senior year, got involved in acting through community theater. The following year he applied to the MFA theater program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television—a nationally acclaimed program, which accepts only 10 of approximately 500 applicants each year.
He got in.
“It was surreal,” Mercado said. “Coming from a small, agricultural community, to be accepted by such a high-level program was an honor. I had a great opportunity that I took full advantage of.”
He left for California and hardly looked back. He earned his MFA in theater, acted on both screen and stage, won the Jack Nicolson Prize in Acting and performed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit” with its original cast.
High schools and zoot suits
The night before Easter Sunday in 2003, Mercado closed out a successful play-run in L.A. The next day, he waited in the airport terminal for his flight to Denver to visit his mother who’d been battling cancer. He called his sister to let her know he was boarding—and learned from her that his mother had just passed away.
He never got to tell his mother goodbye.
“I re-evaluated what was important,” he said. “I needed to take some time off from the grind of L.A. as an actor.”
He took a job teaching drama at Denver’s North High School, thinking it would give him some grounding for a year, before he headed back to L.A. At North, he directed his very first production: “Zoot Suit,” based on the true story of the 1943 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, in which Chicano youths were wrongfully charged with the crime.
The show was a hit, to put it lightly.
It was the first high school production to play at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ professional-caliber Buell Theatre—where it opened to a sold-out crowd. Jerry Wartgow—then-superintendent of Denver Public Schools superintendent and current chancellor of CU Denver—showed his support by wearing a baggy, pin-striped zoot suit to a school board meeting. Then-mayor John Hickenlooper appointed Mercado to the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.
Mercado fell in love with the experience of observing young people grow into confident actors.
He founded the Labyrinth Arts Academy to train Denver’s underserved high school youth in the performing arts and to cultivate future cultural leaders. Mercado serves as executive director of the Historic Elitch Theatre, which hosts the Academy, and CU Denver students support the Academy as mentors and interns.
“Teaching those kids changed my life,” he said.
Lighting a new fire
Now, as an assistant professor in CU Denver’s Department of Theatre, Film & Video Production, Mercado teaches and directs some of the same students who changed his life at North.
In fact, 21-year-old student Eddie Orozco, who is playing Leonardo in “Blood Wedding,” starred in Mercado’s revival of North’s “Zoot Suit” in 2010. In a further connection between the tight-knit teacher and student, Mercado played the very same lead role in Blood Wedding when he was almost exactly Orozco’s age.
“I think ‘Blood Wedding’ is a rite of passage for actors,” he said. “It’s a gorgeous tragedy about forbidden love.”
Sometimes magical and always full of passion, the drama depicts what happens when societal convention limits strong, natural desires. Mercado said he’s pushed the student actors to reach deep into their own emotions—both realized and suppressed—and to unleash them on stage.
“It takes such courage to be an actor,” Mercado said. “For me, part of that courage died when my mother died, but a new fire was lit in sharing the knowledge and empowering youth to uncover their talent.”