Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Importance of Watching West Side Story with Context

Have you ever questioned your memories?


T Charles Erickson

Let me tell you a story: it's 2006 and I'm a junior in high school in a small town up north. The school musical is announced and it's West Side Story. I'm thrilled because it's one of my favorite shows, ever.pointblank.omg., and I get a shot at what I consider the peach part of all theater: Maria. Magically I am cast in the role despite my stage fright and go on to have the hardest, most fulfilling artistic experience of my life. I grow leaps and bounds in that production in so many different ways, and it is a cherished memory. That is... until I leave my small (mostly white) town for the Big City of Minneapolis, go to college, and begin to listen to voices other than those I grew up with - voices who were hurt by the stereotypes presented in the script of West Side Story, voices who even advocated that it no longer be performed.

T Charles Erickson

I'm telling you all of this because I want you to understand the massive cognitive dissonance I hold around this show, something that I am still (and maybe always will be) working through, and something I don't have answers for. The place West Side Story holds in my heart will be there forever - young loves always are, and I can't turn back the clock on my past experiences. But the older I get, and the more voices I listen to, the more I question my participation in that show and the general fervor that surrounds it globally. It is not a thing I take lightly, and it is not a pleasant exercise to re-examine my youthful memories in the harsh light of my current perspective, but it's something that feels irresponsible not to do now that I've heard from those voices (for more context, be sure to check out this incredible piece in Howl Round; this piece in the Washington Post; and this blog piece about the interracial relationship aspect of the story).

T Charles Erickson

So with this context in mind, let me talk about the latest rendition of West Side Story to hit #tctheater stages, this time at the Guthrie. First things first: from a production perspective it's gorgeous, which is no surprise. No expense was spared in the scenic design (by Christopher Acebo), which is much more modern than I've seen in other productions. This is a New York City not of warm brick tenement buildings but cold steel beams and buzzing neon lights (part of Bradley King's thoughtful lighting design). It's clean and harsh and it really works, providing a stark contrast to the lavishly colored costumes (produced with a flourish by Jen Caprio) and pushing the audience's context for the show forward. The sound design from Elisheba Ittoop is perfect, allowing us to hear each note and each voice in turn without drowning anyone out or blasting us from over-programmed speakers. Maija Garcia's choreography adds a modern dance touch on top of the classic Jerome Robbins choreography, allowing the dynamic young cast to explode off the stage. Mark Hartman expertly conducts the orchestra to glorious heights; it's a showstopper of musicianship on an extraordinarily difficult score, and they nailed it.

T Charles Erickson

The cast is unimpeachable as well and features an explicitly mixed-race cast on both sides. Marc Koeck and Mia Pinero have good chemistry as Tony and Maria, respectively. Koeck in particular soars through his solos with a winning romanticism, and Pinero nails each high note without flinching. They are convincingly youthful and fresh, and they do their predecessors proud. The gangs overall are full of smart new talent and poised performances; listing them individually would be exhausting, but suffice it to say each person is really well chosen for their parts. The performers who really blew me away? Ana Isabelle as Anita; Isabelle is a fabulous Puerto Rican actress who blows up the stage every time she struts on. You can really feel the emotion in her voice and every move, and she is literal dynamite. Darius Jordan Lee was also unbelievable as Riff; every sinew of his being is flexed with tension throughout the show, and he was an unexpected but inspired choice for the part.

Overall: fans of West Side Story will not be disappointed with this production. The Guthrie has spared no expense, the cast is incredibly talented, the choreography thrills, the design is fresh and interesting. I'm sure it's going to be a great success and I wish the performers all of the best - they've worked so hard and they're doing great work.

T Charles Erickson

But I can't shake my cognitive dissonance. I have often heard West Side Story described as a masterpiece of universal moral meaning, but is that really true? The score is undeniably an incredible piece of art if we can lay the story aside - no one will argue that. But the trouble with West Side Story is that the story is integral to the entire experience. You can't divorce it from the music and it would be very difficult to rewrite. Viewers are taught to understand this narrative as a meeting of equals and see that both sides suffer from mutual wrongdoing; the trouble is that if we're really honest with ourselves, these gangs did not start on the same foot or context. The American legacy of legalized racism, mass incarceration, and unequal immigration policies does not shape the lives of white Americans in the same way that it does people of color, and presenting their experience on the same footing does do a disservice to those who suffer from those policies. Authorship matters, a lot, and in the case of this show it changes all of our understandings of who is represented and how.

T Charles Erickson

So if you want to go see a beautifully produced show, please do. The production itself is wonderfully done; several thoughtful changes have been made (such as not arresting Chino at the end of the show, a great choice) and there has clearly been some intentional internal dialogue at the big G about how to handle some of the recent controversies surrounding the show. I appreciate the effort they put into the production and I think there are many people who can still get a lot out of it. The music is incredible, undoubtedly.

It just broke my heart to feel my soul soar with every note of that glorious orchestra and know how much work is still left to be done, how many people still suffer under our institutions, and how little interest many in our nation seem to have in really giving everyone an equal playing field to live on. If you want to go, go see it and enjoy it - just make sure to call your senators when you get home to tell them to take care of real-life Puerto Ricans, to end mass incarceration, and to vote for policies that make the horrific events in West Side Story truly nothing more than a fairy tale. West Side Story runs at the Guthrie through August 26; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.