Kent State students call for inclusivity, diverse casting after ‘West Side Story’ cancellation

Kent+States%C2%A0School+of+Theatre+and+Dance+posted+to+its+Facebook+page+announcing+West+Side+Story+as+its+fall+musical.+The+school+later+canceled+the+production+and+will+instead+put+on+Children+of+Eden+in+November.

Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance posted to its Facebook page announcing “West Side Story” as its fall musical. The school later canceled the production and will instead put on “Children of Eden” in November.

Anna Huntsman

When Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance announced “West Side Story” as its fall mainstage musical last May, junior musical theater major Bridgett Martinez, 20, was stoked.

“This is the show that made me really love musical theater, and made me feel represented in musical theater,” said Martinez, whose parents moved here from Puerto Rico. “I saw myself as Maria.”

Martinez was hoping for the lead role of Maria, but instead she was cast as Maria’s understudy — and the role was given to a white student. At first, Martinez was upset about not getting her dream role, but her frustration deepened when she read the full cast list.

“Once I read (the list) again and I really saw … all of the casting choices, I was just blown away because it was not correct at all,” she said.

“West Side Story” is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that takes place in early ‘60s New York City, where two rival gangs — the Polish-American “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” — fight for control over the West Side streets.

Of the three Latinx leading roles, none were given to Latinx students. Several white students were cast in Latinx supporting roles, and some Latinx students who auditioned were not given any role in the show, even though white students were cast in ensemble roles.

Senior theater major Viviana Cardenas, 21, also identifies as Latina. She got a callback for the role of Anita, another Puerto Rican lead role, but an African-American student got the part instead.

“It’s more than just getting a role,” said Cardenas, whose father is from Ecuador. “I don’t get to tell other people’s stories because of the color of my skin, but yet when there is this story that is about people of cultures like me, about people of color like me, and that gets taken away from me … that was the most heartbreaking.”

Aside from the casting choices, some students were also frustrated cast members are required to accept the role they are given, per theater department rules.

If they decline, students are put on probation — which, according to the theater program requirements listed online, means “BFA Musical Theatre candidates … may not participate in School of Theatre and Dance productions or outside productions.”

Even if a student was conflicted about the role they were given in “West Side Story,” they could not turn it down without significant repercussions.

“If they didn’t have this diverse cast in mind, and if they didn’t think that we as the Latino students could fulfill these lead roles, why did they continue on with the show that they picked?” she said.

The numerous concerns about the cast list led Eric van Baars, the director of the School of Theatre and Dance, to hold a town hall-style meeting in the E. Turner Stump Theatre on Sept. 4.

“I felt it was important that as a school we come together and talk about it … and come to some sort of decision to do next,” van Baars said.

He said he heard in the meeting “the strength and the courage that came forward from many different voices in support of one another, in support of arts as an agency for change and in support of doing the right thing for the right reason.”

Representatives from the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion helped facilitate the discussion. Faculty members who attended included Terri Kent, the director of the musical theater program and “West Side Story.”

After the meeting, it was unclear to students whether the school would recast the show, pick a new show or cancel the fall mainstage production completely. While Martinez wanted Kent, the director, to recast the show, Cardenas had a different perspective.

“They didn’t think I could do (a lead role) in the first place … but yet, because people said things, (they’re) just going to give me the role?” she said. “It doesn’t make me feel valued as an artist, it doesn’t make me feel valued as a person of color. If they did recast it, I would step out of the show.”

Cardenas said she believed Kent chose the cast based only on talent, without taking into account the ethnic backgrounds of some roles.

“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.”

Van Baars noted casting a production is subjective in any case, and at the college level, it often depends on the talent pool of the students.

“We’re not going to … go out and cast an outside actor because we’re trying to provide opportunities for students in the school,” he said.

Van Baars eventually opted to cancel the show and picked “Children of Eden” as its replacement, as he did not feel it was the right place or time for the school to continue with “West Side Story.”

“Telling a different story right now … that maybe has a message of more hope and positivity moving forward,” he said of his decision to select “Children of Eden.”

Not just Kent State

Controversial “West Side Story” casting has occurred numerous times in the history of the show. In the 1961 movie adaptation of the musical, white actors played several of the Latinx roles, including Maria, played by Russian-American star Natalie Wood. In April, Broadway actress Sierra Boggess, who is white, pulled out of a BBC Proms production of the musical after she was cast as Maria.

“Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show,” Boggess said in a Facebook post.

Though a gradual process, regional theaters around the country are making efforts to incorporate inclusivity and representation in their casts.Deena Selenow, a freelance director and a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, said it is up to those in charge to actively seek out ways to hire and cast diverse performers, instead of casting performers out of convenience.

“If you’re thinking, ‘I really want a diverse cast, but I’m not sure if the usual pool will cut it,’ then hit the ground,” Selenow said.

For college programs, she suggested reaching out to affinity groups and professors of Latinx, gender or LGBTQ studies asking them to promote auditions to their students.

“Equity, diversity and inclusion in theater makes for a better theater,” Selenow said. “You’re including a variety of perspectives, and you’re really representing what America is today, and not just what certain people’s experiences in America are.”

Selenow touted the efforts of several U.S. universities in achieving diverse casting, such as a 2016 production “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” at Dartmouth College — where non-theater major African-American actresses were cast and the director, Selenow, was found through a national search — and the diversity action statement developed at DePaul University.

“Our community engages in lively exploration, between and beyond categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, nationality, ability and artistic discipline,” the statement says.

Van Baars said the school usually keeps audition recruitment within the walls of the Center for Performing Arts.  

“With musical theatre … when you need students to sing, act and dance, sometimes the talent pool outside the school is not as strong as it is inside the school,” he said.

What’s next for KSU theater?

Martinez said the “West Side Story” incident is not the first time she felt there were fewer opportunities for minority students. In the past, she and other students were encouraged by faculty members to seek performance opportunities elsewhere, such as shows at Kent State’s Department of Pan-African Studies.

Cardenas said she hopes the “West Side Story” controversy will lead to more progressive diversity efforts in the school for the future.

“I actually think that this needed to happen for changes to be made in the school, and I think things happen for a reason,” she said.  “I think they know that what they did made an impact on a lot of people, and I think that’s why they changed the show.”

Moving forward, students hope school leaders will continue to take action for more inclusive and diverse casting.

“Something we would like to continue to push for is having a person of color in that room all the time — auditions, callbacks, cast list being made — because we should have someone on our side in that room,” Martinez said.

Martinez said she expressed this idea in the town hall meeting. Because of this, Kent, the director of “West Side Story,” included an African-American colleague of hers in the casting room for “Children of Eden” auditions.

The school held school-wide diversity training last Friday, given by DEI faculty. Van Baars said additional school-wide measures will soon be announced.

“I know a lot of the students have said they want to hear the faculty’s response to this, and we didn’t have time to do it in the last meeting,” he said. “Our next town hall meeting will be devoted to faculty response.”

Cardenas said the casting choices for “West Side Story” is a local example of a national conversation about inclusivity in the industry.

“It’s not just about the cast list; it’s a much bigger issue … within the whole world,” she said. “There are so many conversations that need to be told like this in order for people to hear people of color … all stories need to be told, and representation does matter, and I think more people need to know that.”

Anna Huntsman is an enterprise reporter for KentWired and TV2. Contact her at [email protected]