According to transdisciplinary performing artist Migguel Anggelo, Julie Andrews and Freddie Mercury have a lot in common. In addition to their high, virtuosic, and theatrical voices, the two performers have long served as inspiration for Anggelo’s creative practice. His latest piece, English with an Accent — premiering for one night only on April 1 at GALA Hispanic Theatre — will be a hybrid theatrical experience that blends dance, musical theater, and opera to tell the story of immigration to the United States. Anggelo himself immigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela, and he hopes that the piece will resonate with those “from any immigration journey.”
English with an Accent tells the story of Anggelo’s own transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. In this semi-autobiographical tale, a new caterpillar arrives in New York City, only to be mistaken for a lowly worm. This theatrical experience will follow the caterpillar protagonist as he explores the city and starts to doubt not only his own identity but also the very premise of the “American Dream.” Starring Anggelo and ten dancers, this piece interrogates what it is like to be queer, Latino, and an immigrant in the United States while exploring the function of the “artist” in today’s society.
Anggelo has always stressed the importance of diaspora and ensemble. Many of the people involved in the show, from cast to creative team, are immigrants or have some connection to immigration. Anggelo believes he and the ensemble are equal players: “It’s like me reflecting on them, and they are reflecting on me. So it’s like a mirror.”
Out of the 260 dancers who auditioned to perform in English with an Accent, only 10 were chosen for this show, which has been rehearsing for the past month in New York City. Anggelo is particularly excited for audiences to witness Israeli choreographer and director Avihai Haham’s stunning movement as 11 bodies form one giant caterpillar, Tuce Yasak’s (from Turkey) dynamic lighting, and Ryan Park’s eye-catching costumes.
The show also consists of 13 news songs by Anggelo’s longtime collaborator and music director, Jaime Lozano. These string-dominant pieces were recorded by a live orchestra that includes a string quartet (violins, viola, cello), horns (trumpets, trombones, clarinet, saxophones), and a gospel choir for backup vocals. Anggelo and Lozano refer to the music as “organic songs,” as many of the pieces utilize found and unexpected sounds that heighten the show’s theatricality.
For Jaime Lozano, writing English with an Accent was a “shared journey” and “open collaboration.” He emphasizes that both he and Migguel Anggelo are “immigrant artists pursuing our dreams, trying to find a home in a new place.” According to Lozano, English with an Accent is the culmination of two years worth of “writing songs together, being in the room, throwing ideas around, thinking about new melodies, and finding the right way to tell this story” and “speak from our hearts,” which has only served to strengthen their bond and friendship.
Whenever Migguel Anggelo creates a new piece, he imagines himself in the place of the audience. What would someone coming to the theater like to see on stage? For this work, which originally began as an idea for a music album, Anggelo asked himself another equally important question: How can English with an Accent tell the story of immigration in a way that it hasn’t been told before?
Anggelo obtained his U.S. citizenship in 2020 while the world was in quarantine. He stresses that the pandemic brought him “something positive and nice,” and he used his newfound free time to envision what it would look like to bring his budding idea about immigration to the stage instead of to the production studio. A metaphor kept turning around in Anggelo’s mind — one that compared immigration to insect metamorphosis. For Anggelo, the comparison is all too clear.
“People get so scared about worms,” Anggelo says. But what some people see as “worms” can in fact be larvae that undergo a beautiful transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. This is the inspiration behind English with an Accent, but the journey that got Anggelo to this point perhaps starts as he was growing up and singing opera to his cows on his Venezuelan farm.
Anggelo’s father was a mechanic and a chef. Whenever his dad was fixing cars or cooking, he would always play Pavarotti. The young Anggelo also grew up listening to Freddie Mercury and watching The Sound of Music, where he fell in love with Julie Andrews. Anggelo refers to Andrews in particular as his vocal “mentor” to whom he owes his illustrious high notes. Imitating and emulating the stylings of these artists, Anggelo trained himself to sing for an audience that couldn’t talk back: the animals on the farm where he grew up. But this training proved successful: as a teenager in Venezuela, Anggelo landed gigs on the stage and on television.
Eventually, however, Anggelo left his home to travel to Germany. Strapped for cash and wanting to continue backpacking in the country, Anggelo took to busking in the streets. It was there that he met a student from the Conservatory of Music in Cologne who encouraged him to audition. Anggelo was admitted to the conservatory with a private scholarship, and there he trained as a countertenor, a rare voice type sung by male-identified singers who sing in a range similar to a classical mezzo-soprano. On a whim, Anggelo auditioned for the Latin American tour of Fame the musical. He landed a leading role and stayed with the tour for over four years.
During his several decades as a performer, Anggelo has lived in the United States, Germany, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Argentina. Through his travels, he got to know the intersecting issues of politics, immigration, and the arts very well. While in Argentina, Anggelo noticed issues with political corruption. “Corruption follows me,” Anggelo quips. So he returned to Venezuela just as Hugo Chávez was coming into power. This growing unlivable political climate — which Anggelo notes is difficult for artists, especially queer artists, to thrive in — prompted him to emigrate permanently to the United States, initially on an artist visa. Anggelo has been living in the U.S. for the past 17 years.
Working in a clothing store in Miami, Anggelo encountered David Stark, an event planner, and the two became creative partners. Both moved to New York City to further their careers and create new transdisciplinary pieces. Stark in particular has been instrumental in getting English with an Accent off the ground. In addition to its premiere in Washington, DC, the show is set to be performed at Lincoln Center in the near future. Anggelo also hopes to bring the work to Miami and the city’s large Venezuelan population.
The context of location is a central narrative of the show. One song in particular, Anggelo notes, will be controversial given that the world premiere of the piece is set to take place in Washington, DC. The tale of immigration is not always as beautiful as the metamorphosis metaphor implies, and this song alludes to the previous U.S. presidential administration and its stance on immigration. And though Anggelo has not had the opportunity to be a frequent visitor to the DMV, he expresses not only his fondness for the area (he loves Annapolis) but also how important it is that his piece makes a political statement right here at the seat of the United States government.
Additionally, Anggelo cannot help but find ways in which his piece relates to the war Russia is raging on Ukraine and what can happen to a country just because “a person wants more power.” Anggelo stresses that democracy, even in the United States, is very fragile and that his piece speaks to that. “It’s about poetry,” Anggelo says. “It’s about racism. Discrimination. How you fight so much about your dreams. And how whenever it looks like bad things are going to happen, they’re never gonna win.”
According to Anggelo, English with an Accent illustrates that in the end, “love is always the truth.”
English with an Accent is being co-presented by GALA Hispanic Theatre and Washington Performing Arts for one night only on Friday, April 1, 2022, at 8 p.m. at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, made possible with commissioning support from the Cultural Arts Center at Montgomery College. Tickets are $40 each (general admission) and are available through Washington Performing Arts and GALA Hispanic Theatre.
GALA Theatre is located one block from the Columbia Heights Metro station. Parking is available at a $4 discounted rate (with validation of the parking ticket at the theatre lobby) at the Giant garage with an entrance on Park Road NW.
COVID Safety: Starting April 1, 2022, the wearing of masks is optional. GALA Hispanic Theatre requires all patrons ages 5 and up to show proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test (taken within 72 hours prior to showtime) to be admitted to the theater. For more information about the safety precautions implemented to protect the health of patrons, artists, staff, students, and volunteers, click here.
Conceived by Migguel Anggelo
Music and Lyrics by Migguel Anggelo and Jaime Lozano
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Jaime Lozano
Directed, Choreographed, and Developed by Avihai Haham
Associate Direction and Choreography: Jakob Karr
Costume Design: Ryan Park
Lighting Design: Tuce Yasak
Stage Manager: Thomas Dieter
Executive Creative Producer and Production Design: David Stark
SEE ALSO: A Venezuelan American’s ‘English with an Accent’ to play GALA April 1 (news story)