A few weeks ago, St. Louis provided a flashpoint in a national conversation about theater casting and cultural heritage.
A group of visiting theater artists booed a Muny performance with a white actor playing an Asian role, before walking out. They also objected to Caucasian actors playing Puerto Ricans in a segment from “West Side Story.”
This weekend, COCA is performing “West Side Story” at the Edison Theatre at Washington University. Half the characters in the story are Puerto Rican. But with a few exceptions, they’ve historically been played on stage and in film by white actors. That bothers some of the young people in the COCA production.
“Caucasians can't understand the same circumstances that the other people from the other cultures would understand,” said 19-year-old Dylan Finch, who plays Tony.
‘Where are the boundaries?’
“West Side Story” is a 1950s take on “Romeo and Juliet,” a tale of rival gangs in New York City and the star-crossed lovers whose allegiances fall on opposite sides.
The character of Tony, who’s tragically in love with Maria, is white. Finch, who is of Italian and English heritage, fits his role. But culturally appropriate casting for the musical’s Puerto Rican characters was much more difficult, according to director Jim Butz.
“We didn't have any Puerto Ricans audition so we got into that conversation [about] where are the boundaries?” Butz said.
Butz said he did not contact anyone in the local Puerto Rican community. COCA did tell the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce about the open auditions for actors 21 and under, and several Latino actors are in the cast. None of the Puerto Rican roles went to white actors, Butz said.
After the Muny protest, some of the African-American actors began asking questions. Butz said one wanted to know:
“Well, if it was wrong for that person to be assuming an ethnicity not their own, am I doing the same thing?"
The question, Butz said, was tough to answer.
"I don't know that he came to a completely satisfactory like, ‘Oh yeah. Now it all makes sense,’” he said.
COCA cast almost every person who auditioned, according to Butz.
“You only get so many legit sopranos that walk through the door,” Butz said. And to take into consideration their racial background as well, to say, ‘This person sings it really well, but it's not quite right, ethnically, racially’ — to navigate that space is not easy nor is it obvious, especially in an educational setting where these kids are not being paid to do this. They're actually paying to do it.”
‘In my blood’
One cast member does have Puerto Rican heritage. RhonniRose Mantilla’s father is Puerto Rican; her mother is African-American. Mantilla plays Maria’s friend Anita.
“I feel like, since it being in my blood, it just kind of comes out more and it's easier to kind of shift into my character as Anita as she's very sassy and very spicy,” Mantilla said.
Being Puerto Rican informed Natasha Toro Fischer in both broad and specific ways when she played Vanessa in a local production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
“I understood, you know, café con leche,” Fischer said. “It makes a difference than just somebody who can just say café con leche.”
“There are plenty of roles for white actors but few for actors of color, so it’s a matter of fairness, according to Fischer, a theater teacher at Lafayette High School. But she knows it’s not always that simple. Addressing such cultural matters can be difficult, especially when she thinks about someone who looks like her toddler, whose father is white.
“If my son, with the last name Fischer and blond hair, fair skin, came and played a part in there, they would be like, ‘Why was he cast?’” Fischer said. “Because they wouldn’t understand that he grew up Puerto Rican. So I don’t know what the answer is.”
The ‘Hamilton’ of its time
“West Side Story” debuted on Broadway in 1957 to positive reviews. The musical by playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins, became a part of the American musical theater canon.
The story is timeless, according to Christopher Page-Sanders, who’s choreographing the COCA production. At the heart of the musical, he said, is the broken promise of the American dream.
“It’s about people trying to find their space in what we call ‘America,” Page-Sanders said. “People who came here were sold a story of ‘Come get your place; if you live here, life will be better.’ And then many realize that’s not true.”
Many of those who auditioned had never seen “West Side Story,” so the creative team began their work by showing them the movie. Some of the young actors laughed when the rival gangs suddenly threw their energy into dance but became more subdued as the tragedies wrought by a divided community were laid bare by the classic film.
But the movie and even the musical have lost some of their luster in recent years. Some critics have objected to the fact that it was four white men who created the Puerto Rican story, calling it cultural appropriation. In a recent parody of "West Side Story," Puerto Ricans illustrate through pointed humor how they think its creators conflated Latino cultures and miscast the musical.
In a 2011 interview, actor Rita Moreno revealed she was made to wear dark makeup for the film, which also starred many white actors in Puerto Rican roles.
But a new rendition of the movie, by Stephen Spielberg, seeks to address some of these issues, with audition notices calling for Latino actors for the Puerto Rican characters.
Despite these concerns, the story remains transformative, according to Ron McGowan, musical director for the COCA production, who calls “West Side Story” the “Hamilton” of its time.
“You can accept its flaws just like you can accept the flaws of anything else,” McGowan said. “But you need to appreciate the work of art itself and the craftsmanship at the same time.”
If you go:
‘West Side Story,’ presented by COCA
Where: Edison Theater at Washington University
When: 7 p.m., Friday, July 27; 1 and 5 p.m., Saturday, July 28
How much: $14-$18
Tickets: COCA website
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