Kent State University has canceled its plans to stage the musical “West Side Story” after some Hispanic students objected to the casting of non-Hispanic students in lead roles.
The tragic Romeo and Juliet story involves two rival gangs in New York City — the white Jets and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican.
None of the three leading roles of Puerto Rican characters were given to Hispanic students, according to student-run KentWired.com. Several white students were cast in supporting Hispanic character roles, the student news outlet reported.
“If they didn’t have this diverse cast in mind, and they didn’t think that we as the Latino students could fulfill these lead roles, then why would they continue on with the show in the first place?” theater major Bridgett Martinez told WKSU public radio.
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Martinez tried out for the lead role of Maria but was cast as her understudy, according to KentWired, but she insists her complaints aren’t just sour grapes.
“Once I read (the list) again and I really saw … all of the casting choices, I was just blown away because it was not correct at all,” she told KentWired.
Fellow theater major Viviana Cardenas, who lost the role of Anita to a black student, was also bothered.
“It’s more than just getting a role,” Cardenas told the student publication. “I don’t get to tell other people’s stories because of the color of my skin, but yet when there is this story that is about people of cultures like me, about people of color like me, and that gets taken away from me … that was the most heartbreaking.”
Cardenas said she believed the professors who cast the show did so based only on talent, but “there are more things that need to be considered than just that,” she told KentWired.
Eric van Baars, director of Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance, held a town meeting on Sept. 4 where Martinez and other students aired their concerns to faculty members, according to WKSU.
After that meeting, van Baars decided to drop “West Side Story.”
“The director of the School of Theater and Dance chose a different musical, Children of Eden, and recast the students who auditioned into this production. So there is still a fall musical for our students to showcase their talents,” Kent State said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.
“The change was in response to our community members’ voices and the national dialogue regarding the desire for authenticity on our stages. To be current and culturally engaged, the School of Theater and Dance supports the progression of conscious casting in the American theater today.”
The switch has met with mixed feedback, according to students who talked to Campus Reform. a conservative news outlet that covers higher education.
It “reflects that the school is willing to listen and take accountability for mistakes and poor decisions,” Paul Appleby, president of the student theater group All-In(clusive), told Campus Reform.
“We’re obviously at a very difficult time as a nation, especially with how we treat people of color, but I think the fact that the school decided to shut down West Side Story shows that when people raise their voices and make it clear what they are and aren’t willing to put up with.”
But Skyler Dye, a theater performance student at Kent State, told Campus Reform that dumping “West Side Story” was “bowing to racists.”
“It is a complicated thing, for sure,” Dye said, “but ultimately there have been, and will continue to be, productions of West Side Story that use colorblind casting. I think if belief can be suspended for a good production, there is no issue.”
The casting of non-Hispanic actors in productions of “West Side Story” has raised issues before, going back to how white actress Natalie Wood was cast to play the female lead of Maria, a Puerto Rican woman, in the classic 1961 film version.
Steven Spielberg is directing a new film version and has made a point to search nationwide for Hispanic actors for the lead roles.
“The most striking difference is that Spielberg seems to be taking steps to cast the movie in an ethnically authentic manner, especially at a moment when Latino activists are asking for more on-screen representation,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote earlier this year.