A student production of West Side Story at Kent State University has been cancelled after uproar that white students had been cast to play Latino characters.
Latino students who auditioned for roles playing members of the ‘Sharks’, a Puerto Rican street gang in the musical, were outraged after the three leading roles all went to non-Latino students.
Kent State musical theater major Bridgett Martinez, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, auditioned for her dream role as the romantic lead Maria, and was devastated when a white student landed the part.
The musical, an adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, is set in 1950s New York City and tells the story of forbidden love between the leader of the Polish-American Jets and the sister of the Sharks’ leader.
Bridgett Martinez (above), whose parents are from Puerto Rico, was devastated when her dream role as West Side Story romantic lead Maria went to a white student
Sharks leader Bernardo (left) and Jets leader Riff (right) square off in the famous rumble scene from the original Broadway production of West Side Story
‘I was just blown away because it was not correct at all,’ Martinez, 20, told student publication KentWired. ‘I saw myself as Maria.’
Instead, Martinez was cast as understudy for the role of Maria. ‘None of the three Latino leads were cast as Latino,’ she noted.
Theater major Viviana Cardenas, 21, auditioned for another leading role as Puerto Rican character Anita, but was disappointed when the role went to a black student.
Cardenas, who is president of the school’s Latin/x in Theater club, told the student outlet that she believed the professors had erred by failing to take ethnicity into account during casting.
‘I think the professors who made the decision wanted the best for the show, and that’s what they considered, and that’s it,’ she said. ‘I think there are more things that need to be considered than just that.’
The outcry prompted the theater department to hold a town-hall style meeting last month, overseen by officials from the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Rita Moreno is seen portraying Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story
Following the meeting, Eric van Baars, the director of the School of Theatre and Dance, announced that West Side Story was cancelled, and that the department would mount Children Of Eden instead.
In a statement, van Baars said that the production was cancelled in response to outcry raised over the casting.
He said that Kent State’s theater department supports ‘the progression of conscious casting’.
‘Conscious casting’ is a modification to the concept of ‘colorblind casting’, the formerly popular approach of casting roles without regard to the actor’s race.
The ‘conscious’ approach actively seeks to cast non-whites into roles written for white characters. The reverse is strictly to be avoided under this approach, however.
At Kent State, not everyone was pleased with the decision to cancel West Side Story.
Theater minor Skyler Dye told Campus Reform that the decision to cancel West Side Story was ‘bowing to racists’ who ‘can’t see anything but skin color’.
Martinez told KentWired that she would advocate for to ‘have a person of color in that room all the time – auditions, callbacks, cast lists being made.’
‘Because we should have someone on our side in that room,’ she added.