Rita Moreno initiates Kimmel series featuring Latino standouts

“Hey you guuuuuuyyyys!!!”

Rita Moreno is not known for her “inside voice.” Her signature line on the PBS show “The Electric Company” often was shushed in favor of calm reasoning. But that shout was far more memorable than the lesson of the day.

The EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) is the first speaker in the Kimmel Center’s Voz Congreso series featuring Latino celebrities, intellectuals, writers, and politicians. The Kimmel is using the 80-year-old performer — who has been a mainstay of American entertainment for almost 70 years — to bring the Philadelphia Latino community to the Avenue of the Arts.

“It’s always a challenge as a performing art center to reassure the community that you do diverse programming. You should be home for the city,” said Matthew Wolf, vice president of programming. “The demographics are shifting.”

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The Kimmel Center is not alone in coveting Latino audiences. Interact Theater in Rittenhouse Square put together the theater festival “Outside the Frame: Voices from the Other America,” featuring mostly one-person performances by marginalized people — gays, African-Americans, and Latinos, among others. Director Seth Rozin says the most obvious way to attract new audiences, which do not traditionally come to theater, is put on a show they want to see.

“Another is to program things consistently over time, and that’s what we’ve done at Interact with the African-American community, and we’ve built up a pretty strong audience there,” said Rozin. “It’s a little trickier with the Latino community. There’s less things written, and there’s little tradition to start with, so it’s harder to tap into.”

Spanish opera in short supply

If Rozin has a hard time finding English language plays written about Latinos, it’s even tougher to find Spanish-language opera.

“Il Postino,” a new opera based on an Italian movie about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, was composed by Daniel Catán who died last year shortly after the opera’s premiere. Philadelphia’s Center City Opera Theater quickly snapped it up.

“The largest growing demographic is the Latino-Hispanic communities,” said CCOT director Andrew Kurtz. “They are major consumers of culture and the arts, but they don’t go to opera as frequently as other demographics do. As I look toward the future of opera, 20 percent is going to be Hispanic in the next 10 years, where at CCOT less than 3 percent is Hispanic. There is work to be done.”

Kurtz will stage “Il Postino” in May, but that might not be enough. Because some Latinos are not accustomed to going to opera — even opera meant for them — CCOT is building ties to the Latino community to draw audiences. The company will soon be hunting for a local Latino composer and librettist to create a new opera with a story originating from that community. Through the years it takes to conceive and compose the work, Kurtz hopes to help build a desire for Latino opera. Specifically, a desire for downtown Philadelphia opera.

As Anita in “West Side Story,” Rita Moreno played the part of a young woman wanting to assimilate in America, facing off against a boyfriend who does not. Philadelphia, like midcentury New York City, has a Latino community with few established traditions.

Building up traditions

“Everybody I know that is Latino in Philadelphia was not born here. Was not raised here,” said Ken Trujillo, board chair of the Latino social services organization Congreso. “Most Latinos are transplants. So you really do have to build infrastructure.”

Trujillo says Latinos are a “blank slate” in Philadelphia, who need to establish roots. He might be the one to help that happen. The attorney recently bought WHAT and turned it into a Spanish language radio station, and he is on the board of the Kimmel Center. The speaker series featuring Rita Moreno — Voz Congreso — is his brainchild. He created a partnership between the Kimmel and Congreso — one providing the audience, the other providing programming.

Many Center City cultural organizations find it difficult to get Latino audiences to come downtown. Regardless of the cultural event, many do not see the Avenue of the Arts as a place for them.

“It’s not just Latino,” said Trujillo. “I live in Chestnut Hill, and there are people in Chestnut Hill who don’t want to come to Center City. Right? I think there’s a disconnect across the board.”

Voz Congreso at the Kimmel Center will feature two or three speakers a year, for at least three years. Subsequent speakers, after Moreno, have not yet been scheduled.

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