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The actor playing Orpheus returns to the Ahmanson in a new role and discusses the importance of diversity and representation onstage.


J. Antonio Rodriguez and Company in the “Hadestown” North American Tour playing at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre October 3 through October 15, 2023.
Photo by T Charles Erickson

Hadestown makes its triumphant return to the Ahmanson Theatre, enchanting the hearts of Angelenos once more. With its return comes faces old and new, including J. Antonio Rodriguez, who carries a history with the beloved production. Rodriguez previously performed at the Ahmanson in Hadestown’s 2022 engagement.

Rodriguez currently plays the role of Orpheus, but he first joined the company of Hadestown as a swing in 2022, where he learned of the importance of every role in a show. “The whole year leading up to taking over Orpheus full-time was just me learning and... truly appreciating how important each member of the company is,” he shared. “Each member of the crew, each member of the band, every single member of the cast.”

Though performing as a swing was a rewarding experience for him that has helped him grow as a person and performer, Rodriguez acknowledged the difficulty and pressure that comes with it. “You have to sing; you have to dance. You have to be as good or better than the person who’s on stage,” he said. “I’m grateful for that experience...I just feel I’m a better person now for it.”

Being a part of Hadestown is one chapter of his story, but his passion for theatre started in his early childhood. Rodriguez was born in Mexico and he and his family moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma when he was a child.

When he was seven years old, his teachers heard him singing in the school choir and urged him to play the role of ‘Tiny Tim’ in the school’s production of A Christmas Carol. At the time, he wasn’t sure what that entailed, but his parents encouraged him to take the risk.

“What drew me to musical theatre is that I was the only person that looked like me doing it.” he said.

“But now that I’m older...I wish I hadn’t been the only one doing it.” Rodriguez is a Latino performer, who takes great pride in his identity. He acknowledged the lack of diversity within the arts, which motivated him to follow this pathway. “You don’t see people that look like us...especially darker skin, Indigenous [people].” Rodriguez hopes that the community will become more inclusive, and that Latino artists will join him in the art form. “I want to be a part of the larger collective,” he shared.

Though Rodriguez navigates the arts as a Latino artist, he also takes on a unique position within society. Rodriguez is a Dreamer, a person who has lived in the United States without official authorization since coming to the country as a minor. Dreamers can be authorized to work in the U.S. through the DACA program and receive temporary relief from deportation and work authorization. The name Dreamer derives from the 2001 DREAM Act, which has had 11 iterations since its inception.

“I learned that I was undocumented [and] it lit a fire,” he shared. “It’s a weird feeling; I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. I don’t feel like I belong in the United States because I lack the documentation...[but] I also don’t feel like I belong in Mexico. I’ve never lived there; I have no idea what it’s like.”

In the United States, there are an estimated 19 million undocumented individuals living in the country. Rodriguez shares candidly his struggles with his identity, and the anxiety and pressure he has had to face because of it. “It turned out I had an anxiety disorder, and a lot of that was because of being undocumented. The stress that I felt every day...was overwhelming,” he said. His parents shared in that experience as well.

Though Rodriguez has had to navigate the sociopolitical identity of a Dreamer in the United States, he has found solace in musical theatre and the arts. “Theatre is the only place that I felt that I belong,” he shared. Rodriguez acknowledges that the theatre can be a haven for people of different backgrounds, including people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.

He also finds theatre to be necessary for his community as a catalyst for change. “My parents have changed a lot. And I think theatre has helped because we have to be in a very inclusive community. [It’s] made them more open-minded,” he reflected.

Though Rodriguez has had to navigate his identity and mental health, he carries great pride in his position as a Dreamer and Latino artist. “I put it on my social media...[and] I received an influx of messages [saying]‘I’m a Dreamer too.’ I got emotional because [I realized] this really matters, and people really do care,” he said.

Rodriguez hopes his story will inspire more underrepresented communities to find their own love for the arts. He believes it’s important for his community to attend the theatre and the arts as it can inspire them to tell their own stories. He cites Lin Manuel Miranda as an inspiration in this pursuit. “He did it and continues to do it...they’re not going to let you in the door? Build your own door,” he shared. “Tell your version of the story.”

Still, he acknowledges the financial challenges and barriers that prevent audiences from participating in the arts. Even so, he calls for Latinos to invest in the arts and get involved at an early age. “I want to look out [into the audience] and see people that look like my parents in the audience all the time,” he said.

For Rodriguez, diversity in the arts creates special opportunities for representation. He notes this beauty and fulfillment in the role of Orpheus, where different actors have brought their own spin on the role, such as Chibueze Ihuoma, who is a Nigerian actor. Now Rodriguez returns to the Ahmanson stage in one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre to share his own version.

According to the 2020 Census, there are 4.8 million Latinos living in L.A. County. Rodriguez is aware of the importance of his role and hopes to see his community support the arts. As he prepares to return to the Ahmanson, he still feels the pressure of representing his community. “I don’t get nervous a lot, but I am nervous now,” he admitted. “I don’t want to give people a reason to not give people like us a chance ever again.”

Rodriguez is passionate about the beauty of Hadestown, and urges audiences to experience the production. “We have some amazing performers [in Hadestown],” he said. “You can see Dreamers; you get to see so many different backgrounds. The music is amazing. You’ll never hear anything like it.”

And as he returns to Los Angeles, he can’t help but feel that,” Every day it’s just a dream. Truly.”

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