Rick Najera’s ‘Quinceañera’ Debuts in Miami

Catherine A. Jones
 | March 21, 2024

Award-winning writer, actor, and comedian Rick Najera is up to something new. He’s in Miami to wow audiences with his latest project “Sweet 15 ¡Que Quinceañera!” And he promises it will be funny, entertaining … and interactive. By all accounts, Rick Najera’s “Quinceañera” is not your average play. It’s better.

“Sweet 15 breaks the story wall between actors and the audience as part of a theater play that represents a new generation of interactive theater,” Najera tells us. 

The playwright, who is best known for his show, “Latinologues,” which ran on Broadway for 137 performances, wants to introduce audiences to something new. 

“With this show, we are bringing theater to audiences who normally don’t go to theater but who value entertainment and comedy …,” he explains.

Najera is inviting audiences to a quinceañera, and all that comes with it.

Rick Najeras ‘Quinceañera

The story revolves around a Latino family whose patriarch, Eddy Valderama (played by Actor Rene Lavan), returns after a seven-year absence. He left his family the day his daughter, Sonora, turned 15.

Eddy is determined to reunite his family. His condition? They must allow him to make amends by throwing a quinceañera for Sonora, who is now a 22-year-old. “I wrote it for my daughter named Sonora,” Najera says.

The proud dad is no stranger to writing shows audiences love.

He started as a writer for the skit comedy show “In Living Color,” with Actor Jim Carrey. He’s also one of the writers behind Hulu’s original series, “East Los High.” With “Latinologues,” he made history as one of only three Latinos to write and star in their own Broadway play.

So today, it’s only fitting that he’s continuing his personal mission with “Sweet 15 ¡Que Quinceañera!”: to tell the American experience from a Latino perspective. 

Photography by Rey Rodriguez.
Seen here: Roberto Escobar, Rick Najera, Ruben Rabasa, Vanesa Lyon, and Rene Lavan; Photograph by Rey Rodriguez.

Catching up with Rick Najera 

Before the play’s much-anticipated premiere, I caught up with Najera to find out more. He was gracious enough to answer all of my questions (even one about his sleeping habits).

NS: How is this play different from your other projects?

RN: I wrote this play 15 years ago, but, with each year, I changed it to fit each cast. It was done first at San Diego Rep with Yvone De La Rosa in the lead. I wrote it because Sam Woodhouse, the director, heard my daughter Sonora in the background of a call, and he asked a simple question: “Are you going to throw your daughter a quinceañera?” And I didn’t know the answer. 

This play became the answer.  It has been done in different parts of the country and it works but this is the Miami production, and I rewrote the show it fit this town.

Can you relate to the play’s father figure, Eddy Valderama, played by actor Rene Lavan? 

RN: I originally played the role, so it was very personal. But Rene has been a lifetime friend. He was the best man at my wedding. He went to Broadway with my show “Latinolouges,” directed by Cheech Marin

I think he is better in this role than me. I had to concentrate on writing and acting. He is just concentrating on acting, and he is emotional and great. 

I was still in my head  thinking of the play,  but he lives in this role. He truly is in this role. I would watch him do one of the most heartfelt performances I have ever seen. It’s like this role was made for him. Now it fits him. He is a great husband and father and one of the best performances I have ever seen.

NS: The daughter is named Sonora, the same as your daughter. What other similarities do the two share?

RN: My daughter Sonora is an amazing young woman. All my children  are unique. Julian is intellectual but with a sensitive soul. Kennedy is  pure fun and joy. But Sonora is intelligent beyond her years and ambitious. She is like a CEO in training. 

The sonora in the play is aspirational. She is going to Yale Law school, and the only thing that holds her back is money. And that is a problem with many of our people. 

Education is expensive. I think education should be a right. Our society would be much better if Latinos were more educated and not held back by financial roadblocks.  

I went back to school during Covid and got my BA and MFA. And now I have debt, so I can relate the reality that most people can’t afford an education. That comes with crushing student debt. 

This comedy deals with that. Can we afford these extravagant celebrations and afford  education? It’s a 40 billion dollar industry. What if we put that money into education? 

My comedy asks lots of questions but you can get people to think if you make them laugh first.

NS: Why did you choose Miami to debut your play?

RN: I chose Miami because it’s dynamic and the gateway to Latin America. I chose to do the play in Spanglish because I want to move the play not only through America but Latin America. I have a fully bilingual cast and could easily move it to Mexico or Argentina or Spain. The play has a world view. The story is universal and funny and touching. It’s about family and forgiveness. 

NS: Tell me about the venue The Renaissance. It’s not a theater, is it?  

RN: I chose it because it’s not a theater; it’s a quince hall. I’m putting a show about a quinceanera in a quincenera hall. That’s why it’s interactive. I think traditional theaters  are not as current in the environment.  

Theaters tend to play to an older white audience. This is a play for a current Latino audience which is younger and more dynamic . Just look at our music. We have  Bad Bunny, PitBull, Shakira – even CME, the music company. They are Latino owned and they have artists like  Marc Anthony. 

Latino culture is current and now. When I wrote for “In Living Color,” I was surrounded by hip hop but I saw our Latino future in a young woman, a dancer, a “Fly Girl” named Jennifer Lopez. I encouraged her to act. I even wrote a sketch for her, but they said “no.” 

But I put that sketch in my play “Latinologues” that starred Eugenio Derbez and Rene Lavan and Jamie Camile on broadway. I saw the future, and it’s Latino. And, as for Jennifer, well, she is a powerhouse.

NS: What makes Sweet Quinceañera “interactive”?

RN: It’s immersive. You are in a quince hall. And it’s interactive because they need people to make this quince happen, so the audience has to help. The audience is our guest at the party, so we just might get you to be in the court and dance. Or include you in the show. Its a fun party. 

NS: Where do you plan to take the play next?

RN: I’m open to anywhere. Many producers have talked to me about a film. I have a screen play of it. And some have talked about other venus off broadway or with a composer. I personally would like  to take the show to Mexico. Eugenio wanted Broadway. I wanted Mexico and to do it in Spanish. 

NS: What’s next for you? (Do you ever sleep?) 

RN: Sleep is rare, but next is Latino Thought Makers, a series I do in college campuses where I interview Latinos that are innovative. I have interviewed Dolores Huerta, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, Esai Morales. 

I’m bringing it to Benedictine University in Chicago for a season of interviews. 

LTM is show about what I believe: “that Latinos are the answer to all our problems. I believe that we are the future. We are inclusive, and a young and dynamic culture. We are diverse and multicultural. And we are better together than apart. We are the future.

Go See “Sweet 15 ¡Que Quinceañera!” 

“Sweet 15 ¡Que Quinceañera!” has an all-star Latino cast which includes:

  • Rene Lavan (“Christmas with the Kranks,” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” “Latinologues” on Broadway, “Every Witch Way”) as Eddy Valderama; 
  • Ruben Rabasa (“Ant Man,” “Father of the Bride,” “I Think You Should Leave,” “This is Us”) as Fernando Castellano;
  • Roberto Escobar (“Bloodline,” “El Señor de los Cielos”) plays Miguelito;
  • Vanessa Lyon (“Monday Nights at Seven”) plays Eva Valderama; and
  • Lauren Lopez (“In the Heights,” “Westside Story,” “Titanic the Musical,” “Shrek”) as Sonora Valderama.

“Sweet 15! Que Quinceañera!” debuts on April 4 and run through April 28 at Renaissance at the Gables, in Miami, Fla. 

The show is performed in Spanglish (Spanish/English). Tickets are now on sale starting at $49 and can be purchased at www.sweet15show.com or via Eventbrite.com

Content Creator, Comedian, and Actor Alexander Arias, aka Mr. Red, will be making a special appearance.

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