Boys Like That: How two ‘West Side Story’ adaptations are perpetuating harassment and assault

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault. 

Like the state of 2020, no one could have predicted the show that would mark this year would be West Side Story. To some, it refers to the Ivo van Hove-helmed Broadway revival. Van Hove made drastic cuts from the original, which tracks with his reputation for re-imagining classics. These included eliminating Maria’s only solo, “I Feel Pretty,” and the quintessential “Somewhere” ballet (buh-bye Jerome Robbins) while compressing the three-hour musical into one act. Van Hove also added multi-racial actors, but sent mixed messaging by casting them as the Jets, originally intended to be white. He brought on choreographer Sergio Trujillo and ballet dancer Patricia Delgado for consultation to make the dance more “authentically Latino”, but only after the cast requested it. Did I mention there were also cameras?

Another recent adaptation that had the theatre community on its heels was Steven Spielberg’s film penned by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) still scheduled to premiere this December. Boasting the film debut of many young talents including newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Hamilton) as Anita, it has come with a lot of buzz.

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The Challenges and Surprises of Making Theatre on Zoom

In early March, Emma Durbin was midway through writing her capstone project for her playwriting BFA at DePaul University. The workshop of Durbin’s landscape was to be the first time she had worked with a team of professionals on a script of her own. The self-titled “playwright, dramaturg, and amateur sports climber” had been developing landscape for over six-months: drafting proposals, consulting with mentors, researching rock climbing in early-1900’s Scotland — and, of course, writing, rereading, and revising. She was halfway through a full draft when DePaul announced that the university would be switching to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the announcement, Durbin’s workshop was promptly canceled. Canceled and moved to Zoom.

Durbin’s landscape was one of many rehearsals, workshops, and performances that met their untimely end on account of the pandemic. Artists around the country, from community theatre hobbyists to BFA students to Tony-award-winning veterans, have been forced to find new ways to create live theater. More often than not, this has meant producing work over online platforms such as Zoom.

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Student Activists Call In Drama Programs Nationwide

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University art and theatre programs at predominantly white institutions often claim to be safe havens of artistic acceptance. Clouded by claims of ‘diversity’ and acceptance, many BFA arts programs and conservatories see themselves as exempt from racist practices and behavior. In reality, white supremacy is just as integral to the fabric of these programs as productions of Hamlet. Student artists are resisting their institutions and using their unique gifts to pave the way towards a more just arts education. Black students, Indigenous students, and students of color who have been harmed by this racist “BFA culture” are collaborating, taking action, and demanding change.

 

In addition to the pervasive whiteness and financial oppression often present within the superstructure of any predominantly white university, many experiences of racism and anti-Blackness are specific to drama school, ranging from unforgiving work schedules to classrooms that both inflict and exploit the students’ emotional trauma. As a white graduate of Boston University’s School of Theatre (BU), I witnessed and was complicit in this racist culture. To date, BU’s School of Theatre only has one full-time faculty member of color, and shows are often cast by tokenizing students of color, or casting white students in roles written for people of color. BU has a guaranteed casting policy which requires most students to perform in whatever show they are cast in each quarter, denying students their artistic agency.

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Chicago Artists Shine in Virtual Staged Reading of BLACK LIKE ME at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites audiences to witness the new play development process firsthand on September 10th with a virtual staged reading of Black Like Me by Monty Cole, based on the memoir of the same name by John Howard Griffin. This entertaining noir docu-drama examines the fine line between allyship and appropriation.

In 1959, a white journalist sought a doctor’s help to temporarily darken his skin so he could “pass” as Black. He traveled the segregated South for three weeks and published his experiences in 1961. Griffin’s journal has been celebrated by many as an indictment of racism, while others have described it as patronizing or offensive.

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ESSAY: What I Did For Love, And How I Plan To Do Less

A strange ritual would often take place in the halls of my university’s theatre center. College students would convene before classes or rehearsals to present the hours of sleep they had claimed the night before. The student who shared the lowest number would wear this insomnia as a badge of honor. Bonus points were awarded if the time spent awake was done at the library, or in the theatre after hours. I perceived this bizarre ritual as a product of the college experience. Little did I know, the professional theatre would not be that different.

Grind/hustle culture exists in every industry and is designed to incentivize overwork. The archaic 40-hour work week is pushed aside as the bare minimum and anything short of 110% is not enough. This workplace environment leverages guilt to maximize productivity. For an industry that thrives off freelance and contracted work, however, the hustle is more than just a point of pride. It is a necessity. The theatre has an age old habit of underpaying (if at all). Artists are forced to take on overlapping projects and survival jobs just to make ends meet.

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Inclusion in Improv: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Use the Bomb

Famed improviser Stephen Colbert once gave the sage advice for comedians to “learn to love the bomb.” To translate for non-comedians, he meant that when you are failing onstage, feeling humiliated and embarrassed, you have to learn to find joy in the process of failing, so much that it leads you through the fear, out of insecurity, and into success. To be an even semi-successful comedian, you have to learn to love the bomb.

But what happens when the bomb is racism?

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REVIEW: Her Honor Jane Byrne at Lookingglass Theatre, and the Paradox of Civil Violence

Long, long ago, in the before-times of March 2020, I went to see a show at Lookingglass Theatre called Her Honor Jane Byrne. I wrote a review of it, but then the entire world shut down, the production’s run was cancelled, and the review never saw the light of day. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests and displays of police brutality that have been in the public eye this past month, the subject matter of Her Honor Jane Byrne has never been more relevant, timely, and worthy of analysis. We reached out to Lookingglass, and they gave us the go-ahead to publish this review of their cancelled show.

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Love Yourself Like My Life Depends On It

The Revolution Starts With You.

One person can change everything. We know this. We are powerful, connected and talented beings.

What does your revolution look like? Marching? Phone banking? Demonstrating? Facebooking?

I want to know if you have asked yourself, really asked what the revolution means for you. Not for the “movement,” and not for the stolen lives America has taken through the centuries up to this point. Your revolution may look like marches, demonstrations, Facebook rants, phone banks. Your revolution may not look like intentionally considering what you want this world to be when we are done.

What is your revolution?

Your own, personal liberation?

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Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole

On June 4th, as we reported, the four playwrights slotted for this year’s Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens published an open letter withdrawing their plays. On the evening of June 5th, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Chicago drew thousands of marchers to the streets, I sat down (virtually) with Monty Cole for a wide ranging discussion of his project-in-progress, BLACK LIKE ME, that had been slated to headline Ignition. We spoke about the play, his progression from director to playwright, and how Radical Empathy is at the core of his work.

The following is a distilled transcription of our wide ranging conversation (minus many minutes of me fan-girling about his recent projects including his flawless BROTHERS SIZE at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, his triumphant INCENDIARY at Goodman New Stages, and the deceptively soapy ‘til it wasn’t KISS at Haven.) 

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Steep Theatre Loses Edgewater Space

Steep Theatre announced yesterday that they will be forced to move out of their current space at 1115 W Berwyn Avenue this fall.

According to Executive Director Kate Piatt-Eckert, “Steep intends to stay in the Edgewater neighborhood and continue to deepen its relationships with long-supportive neighbors as it moves forward with a focus on inclusivity, accessibility, and flexibility. Steep Theatre is not a building – it is a league of fearless artists, bold leaders, and passionate supporters equipped with nineteen years of experience producing storefront theatre and almost two years presenting music and performance at The Boxcar.”

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