Acclaimed Broadway Latino star Caesar Samayoa remembers the theater before coronavirus.
Like many Americans, Samayoa noticed small changes occurring at his job beginning last March. Performing in the Broadway musical, “Come From Away,” Samayoa recalled that, one day, hand sanitizers appeared backstage, “Then we were told that we couldn’t have any backstage visitors,” he said. “Then it was announced that we couldn’t greet people at the stage door.” One Wednesday matinee, Samayoa was shocked to see a half-empty theater, since “Come From Away” usually played to full houses.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City hard and his show—along with all of Broadway—was shut down. It's remained dark ever since.
“New York is Broadway, and it feels like a part of our heart is gone," said Samayoa.
Despite the current situation, the actor and singer has taken part in a show that highlights the best of his industry while honoring Hispanic Heritage Month, which is recognized between September 15 and October 15.
Samayoa is part of “Viva Broadway: Hear Our Voices,” an all-star digital concert "in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, as well as Latinx milestones in theatre," according to the organizers. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Sergio Trujillo, the online event, which is free, will feature a lineup of Latino talent from stage, television, and film.
Samayoa misses live performing and his “Come From Away” family. "But this concert will be breathtaking. It is something that people all over the world can see, for free, to enjoy our Latino cultures and artists.”
“Viva Broadway: Hear Our Voices” will feature appearances by acclaimed Latino artists like Gloria Estefan, John Leguizamo, Chita Rivera, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thalia, Jon Secada, Ruben Blades, Karen Olivo, and stars from the casts of “in The Heights,” “Hamilton,” “West Side Story,” “On Your Feet,” and more.The event will include a preview of the first Spanish-language production of “A Chorus Line,” from Antonio Banderas, as well as performances from new works like Leguizamo’s musical “Kiss My Aztec!”
“The idea is to celebrate and showcase all of the Latin talent in our presence,” said Sergio Trujillo, who had seven productions running worldwide before the pandemic. “We want to help make the political and social conversations different; to say, we are here, please take notice, make changes.” He hopes the concert will serve as a reminder of the need for more inclusion and Latinx representation on Broadway.
“We are all coming together to show what we offer the community,” said acclaimed Latina Broadway artist Andréa Burns, who is hosting the concert. “We want to build awareness about Broadway, and to build tomorrow’s audiences and workforce. We want to see more Latinos onstage, backstage, on creative teams, and throughout the theater.” She noted that the event benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS as well as Broadway Bridges, a non-profit committed to making sure that every tenth grader in a New York City public high school has the chance to see a Broadway show.
Highlighting the talent within the Latinx community is important, Burns explained, because the more Latinx people who attend Broadway, then the more Latinx works will be done. A report from the Broadway League on the 2018-2019 season found that, while non-Caucasian attendance of Broadway shows hit a record high, the overall audience was still 74 percent white.
Covid's economic toll: 'I lost all my bookings for the year'
Since March, Broadway shows have been suspended, and the annual Tony Awards have been postponed. For many Latinx performers, the industry shutdown and loss of work opportunities has been difficult—both psychologically and economically.
“I feel like this has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone to get through,” said Burns, an original cast member of “In The Heights” and “On Your Feet.” “This is uncharted territory. I would gladly give up my cafecito for a year if I knew I could get back onstage. Hopefully, we are learning what we can do when so many of our tools are taken away while we are struggling to live.”
Burns understands how both audiences and performers alike miss the experience of live theater. “As artists, we have a yearning to communicate and share, and a longing for connection.”
But Burns also pointed to the many online events, solo shows, and virtual collaborations that Latinx artists have undertaken during the pandemic as a sign of the resilience within the theater community.
Under pre-pandemic circumstances, Latinx theater performers faced challenging employment odds. According to a 2017 report by Actors Equity, the union representing theatrical performers, people of color had fewer work opportunities and lower average salaries. Latinos account for just 2.5 percent of the union’s membership.
“For every performer on Broadway, there are a hundred other working actors pursuing their careers and working on their craft,” said New York-based actor and singer Gabe Martinez. Pre-pandemic, he was looking for an agent while his wife Emily, a YouTube personality, went on auditions and castings. When the coronavirus hit, he lost his side job as a wedding and events singer. “Almost overnight, I lost all of my bookings for the year.”
For Martinez, who has toured in “Peter and the Starcatcher” and done regional theater, the downtime and loss of income has been extremely challenging. “And we’re lucky, because we are together, and have savings to draw from, from when we worked on cruise ships.” Martinez started therapy for the first time, which he said has helped him cope. “On our best days, we just hang in there, but there are down days, angry days, and everything in between.”
'We will get through this'
“I have been a performer since I was a child, yet I don’t think I realized how much it was a part of my identity,” Martinez said. He recently sang at a socially-distanced wedding and signed with an agent. He is also now doing “self-tape” (at-home) auditions with his wife.
For the creative team behind Viva Broadway, the hope is to entertain and inspire viewers—and remind them that Broadway will be back.
“One of the things that I hope will come out of this concert is that it will put pressure on my colleagues to continue conversations about diversity,” said director Trujillo. “When they see the beauty and passion of our culture and our stories, they will be blown away. No special effects, no tricks, just the most powerful, authentic songs and voices.”
“Being separated from our art is hard for all of us,” he added. “But we will get through this. The theater has the magic to bring joy, laughter, and peace to audiences, and all of us in New York City are so ready to get back onstage and deliver to audiences what we do.”