Thursday, November 21, 2013

From the Archives: 'West Side Racist?'

In a recent commentary on controversies surrounding sports team names, Winston Jones wrote in the Douglas County (Ga.) Sentinel:

Our society has gotten too picky and thin-skinned so that too many people are offended by too many things. And too many people are running circles around themselves to try to be politically correct on everything. Don't take life so seriously.
That's the point I tried to make in an opinion piece I wrote 14 years ago in reaction to complaints about a New England high school's production of West Side Story. The article appeared on November 21, 1999, in the Daily News of Bowling Green, Kentucky, under the headline, "West Side racist? - Objections to classic play is a sad commentary on our times." The only other place it is available on the Web is here.

This text, however, is more accessible.

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Word comes from Amherst, Massachusetts, that some students and parents object to a planned production of the classic 1957 musical play, West Side Story, at the local high school. They are insisting that it be canceled.

The local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette noted in its Nov. 11 edition that a petition presented to the school board with over 150 signatures states: "The play continues to generate negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in society and perpetuates the racism that we as students have been working so hard to eliminate in our school and community." Other complaints cited the play's use of violence as a way to solve problems.

This is yet another case of ill-informed cultural critics failing to see the forest for the trees. Anyone who has seen West Side Story - or performed in it - cannot help but be touched by its message against prejudice and violence. The message is not subtle. It is not hidden. It is not difficult to grasp.

Like a previous protests against such literary works as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the complainers seem not to understand that in order to present a theme that condemns racial prejudice and stereotyping, it is necessary also to present unsavory characters and dialogue that express the ideas and conditions to author wishes to condemn. Because these types of protests are successful, students are denied an opportunity for fruitful exploration of some of the complex and sad problems faced by our society.

West Side Story is itself based upon an earlier classic, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In its original concept, it was called East Side Story and its focus was to be on a conflicted Catholic-Jewish relationship. As creators Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents (and later Stephen Sondheim) moved forward on the project, they became aware of the tensions in Los Angeles between Americans and Mexican immigrants and in New York's West Side between native English speakers and recent migrants from Puerto Rico. They decided to reset their play in this environment.

But does it "perpetuate stereotypes"? Does it inflame racial or ethnic tensions? Hardly. As Ethan Mordden notes in the chapter on West Side Story in his history of the Broadway musical in the 1950's, Coming Up Roses, "West Side Story is about real people: real life, real love and something is possible, for all the despair."

In Amherst, one alumna said the possibility of her high school presenting West Side Story is "humiliating." A parent, Elizabeth Capifali (a doctoral candidate in the multicultural education at the University of Massachusetts), called it "a very racist play" that is "replete with racial discrimination, creating negative images of Puerto Ricans and poor European immigrants."

Which European immigrants? The characters in the play are all "Americans" - but the ones who speak English and originally lived in New York come off looking much worse, morally speaking, than the Americans who speak Spanish and come from Puerto Rico. It is the "Anglos" who are unwelcoming, disrespectful and hostile toward their new neighbors. It is the "natives" who would rather fight the Puerto Ricans than work and play alongside them. The "natives" are blustery Archie-Bunkers-in-training, with a violent, gangster-like bent. The Puerto Rican characters - also Americans, as they don't hesitate to remind us, and their adversaries - simply want to make a better life for themselves. What kind of negative stereotype is that?

Bowling Green Daily News, November 21, 1999
Aside from the play's message, which can only be missed by someone wearing blinders and earplugs, it is a landmark of the American stage that deserves to be seen and performed by young people who wish to be culturally literate.

West Side Story was cutting-edge in 1957, yet seems somewhat old-fashioned today. (This was my reaction to a London revival earlier this year [1999] that recreated the original production, including the sets and costumes.) Still, students of the theatre recognize its innovations: in music and lyrics, in its focus on young people to the exclusion of adults, in its daring realism in a medium that relies on fantasy. Its progeny include Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, and Ragtime. To deny members of the Amherst Regional High School community an opportunity to participate in, observe and learn from West Side Story is petty and barbarous.

We can only hope that the level-headed faculty, students, and school board members stand up to these philistines. The show must go on.

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For more discussion about West Side Story, check out these videos of a post-screening discussion about the movie from the 2008 Virginia Film Festival.

Part I:

Part II:

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