Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe audiences (especially, we suspect, the female contingent) have been thrilling to the performances of charismatic young Michael Mendez for several years now, in shows ranging from Soul Crooners to The Wiz (essaying the title role) to Five Guys Named Moe. But even longtime admirers gained a new respect for Mendez’s talent this fall, when he took to the stage as Usnavi in WBTT’s sold-out production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights.
The role of a New York neighborhood bodega owner who longs to return to the homeland of his family, the Dominican Republic, was, as WBTT artistic director Nate Jacobs says, one that Mendez was “born to play.” You might even say he’s been building toward that moment since he was a child.
Born in the Dominican Republic himself, Mendez came to Manhattan at the age of 3 with his mother. “I was an only child,” says the 26-year-old, “and I spent a lot of time by myself. The only thing you have with you is your imagination. Living in Washington Heights, I fell in love with many different types of music. My uncle inspired me to want to be in the music environment, and I became aware of hip-hop and then later R&B. I was infatuated with Motown—Marvin Gaye, Al Green. But it was all filtered through hip-hop.”
That changed somewhat when Mendez and his mother moved to Florida. “She didn’t want me to be in middle school in New York,” recalls Mendez. “Plus she loves the beach and being near the water.” Landing in Bradenton, the Manatee School for the Arts was a natural choice for him.
“At the end of eighth grade,” Mendez says, “we did a talent show. And my mother saw something in me.” That led her to encourage him to try out for a part at the Manatee Players community theater, where males of color were needed for a production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. As Mendez puts it, “We didn’t have money for singing lessons, so I learned onstage.”
Those Manatee stage performances also led to his first meeting with Nate Jacobs. “I feel so fortunate to have found Michael in 2011,” says Jacobs. “He already had a passion for music and an impressive work ethic and was ready for training at a higher level.” And for Mendez, Jacobs has been his mentor and WBTT a second home.
“I went to college for a while, majoring in music and minoring in theater,” he says. “But that path wasn’t for me.” Instead, he’s learned on the job, working with Jacobs and older WBTT performers to hone his skills.
Although it may not look that way to audiences, who see Mendez as not just a singer and actor but one with impressive moves onstage, too, Mendez says it took a while for him to feel comfortable dancing, especially when WBTT was presenting productions in small, intimate spaces before acquiring its own theater building. But performing in ensembles and musical revues gave him a chance to discover “what it is to be an entertainer,” he says. “My first time dancing with the other actors, it was amazing to see these gentlemen of such high energy. It made me want to get better. I gained immense growth in Soul Crooners [in 2011]; my stage presence exploded.”
His love for In the Heights goes back years.
“I first heard about the show in 2009, when I went up to intern at my uncle’s music studio in New York,” he says. “Of course, tickets were really expensive and I couldn’t afford to see the show. But I loved the CD and especially got to know the opening number and the finale. I felt like this was my only chance to be involved with a Latin/Hispanic show.”
And he identified with Usnavi, the lead role Miranda played in the Broadway production. But he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to play it.
“In my acting, I always felt there was something missing,” he says. “Most of the time in shows, I was just being me, being goofy or whatever. I spent the first four years [with WBTT] like a baby learning to crawl, but in the past two or three it’s been about exploring the craft. I could do drama, but my vulnerability wasn’t there. But with In the Heights, I’m like the emcee, pushing the night along. Now I feel like I’ve got all my tools in the bag.”
Those tools including writing his own music. Around the same time he was winning hearts in In the Heights, Mendez performed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall during the Arts and Cultural Alliance’s annual arts awards night. He delivered a couple of his own songs (composed thanks to a writing fellowship received through the alliance’s grants program), which he plans to record and release soon.
It’s all part of a carefully conceived career plan, Mendez says. Not content with musical theater work alone, he supplements his income and his aspirations with band gigs playing soul, funk and pop music. He’s worked in films with Ringling College of Art and Design students, and appearing in feature films is another avenue he’d like to pursue. With a longtime interest in martial arts, he’s also expanding his repertoire to include performing or directing stage combat. Like his mentor, Jacobs, he says he wants to “create a production company of my own, and help create a platform for young artists.”
But for now, at least, the popular Mendez doesn’t feel he needs to leave Sarasota for the big city to achieve his goals of being an all-round entertainer. “New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, they’ll always be there,” he says. “But there’s an airport here, and this is my command center. Sarasota is a gem compared to bigger cities; there’s so much artistic information here, and I feel like it’s going to go through a rapid expansion. I don’t have to be in a dog-eat-dog world. There is a mega network here.”
Later this season (April 18 through May 26), Mendez will be back on the WBTT stage in Soul Man, delivering Motown hits of the 1960s. And you can count on seeing more of him—although some day you might have to travel somewhere else to do that. As Jacobs says, “Michael is definitely an artist who is going places.”