Theatre production of “West Side Story” lacks cultural sensitivity

When the Illini Student Musicals announced that their Fall 2014 show would be “West Side Story,” I interviewed to work on the production as director and instead ended up joining the production team as dramaturg, meaning it was my job to focus on the majority of the research for the show. 

After casting was announced I decided to leave the production team due to the cultural insensitivity of choosing white students to play the lead Latino characters in the show.

When reading the director’s note in the playbill before the show began, I was perplexed because it said: “It explores love and devotion and redefines family. Suggestive of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, this show displays the futile nature of violence & demonstrates the importance of diversity.” 

Instead, this production prioritized the choreography and showed a one-dimensional homogeneous perspective of American culture. The casting of this production bastardizes the Puerto Rican culture by not actually representing Latinos, which drastically alters the central conflict: race relations in New York City. 

Therefore, ISM has communicated through its casting and production of “West Side Story” that cultural representation and authenticity is not a priority in student-produced theatre on campus. 

With this in mind, I, along with my some of my peers, have been inspired to create the Brown Theatre Collective. The Brown Theatre Collective’s mission is to create new theatre derived from stories of individuals regardless of their race, gender or sexuality. With this collective, we will create interdisciplinary work that reflects the voice of the student body. 

This isn’t a political response, but rather, an alternative outlet of expression for students that doesn’t systemically allow cultural misrepresentation on this campus.

Mateo Hurtado, junior in FAA.