Cancelled Production of "West Side Story" Shows that Colleges Still Don't Understand How to Cast Roles of Color

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While many within the Kent State University theatre community were excited about the possibility of performing the iconic West Side Story this fall, unfortunately, their hopes have been dashed. This past week it was announced that due to the backlash of casting non-Latinx performers in Latinx roles, theatre administrators decided to cancel the production and perform a different musical instead.

The issues began when the cast was announced, and three principal Latinx roles were cast with non-Latinx performers. In the role of Maria, where her Puerto Rican descent is a primary factor, a white actress was cast and a Latinx performer was cast as her understudy.

Due to the outrage over the casting decisions, a campus town hall meeting was held last month where students were given the opportunity to voice their frustration and offer solutions.

In the end, however, rather than correct the casting missteps, the theatre department switched from West Side Story to Children of Eden.

Commenting on the change to Fox News, KSU theatre director Eric van Baars said, “The cancellation of West Side Story was in response to our community members’ voices and the national dialogue regarding the desire for authenticity on our stages. To be current and culturally engaged, the School of Theatre and Dance supports the progression of conscious casting in the American theatre today.”

While many at the school are praising the decision, others aren’t as happy. Some see this action as nothing more than appeasing mob mentalities rather than promoting casting equality.

Skyler Dye, a theatre minor at KSU saw this action as racist towards white people...try not to laugh at that thought.

“Plenty of people of Puerto Rican descent ‘pass’ as white for all kinds of reasons. I think being too strict on the look for certain groups of people is actually more insensitive on the whole,” he told Campus Reform, a conservative college news site.

Dye called the decision to cancel the production “bowing to racists,” adding that the decision to give in to demands “purely because those people can’t see anything but skin color says more than enough about the university and its dedication to quality.”

“It is a complicated thing, for sure,” he conceded, “but ultimately there have been, and will continue to be, productions of West Side Story that use colorblind casting. I think if belief can be suspended for a good production, there is no issue.”

It also should be mentioned that policies within the theatre department at KSU actually prevent white performers from declining offers of POC roles without penalty. Students are required to audition for all theatre productions and must accept their roles if cast. Failure to do so can lead to probation and dismissal from the program. It should be noted that exemptions can be made but casting inequality is not one of them. It’s fair to say that the white students cast in Latinx roles were possibly fearful that voicing any objection or declining their roles so that a Latinx classmate could portray the role, would lead to a penalty. It’s my opinion that KSU’s policies could use an update.

Over the past couple of years, I have made it well known how I feel about the casting of roles of color. While many might feel differently, I have said that when it comes to roles of color, you must cast these roles correctly when it comes to race. Rather than cast the best actress for the roles of Maria or Anita or Bernardo, what KSU theatre faculty should have done is cast the best Latinx students for the roles. According to the comments from the theatre students, there were plenty of Latinx auditionees to choose from.

I also feel that canceling the production does nothing to help the situation and only fans flames of resentment towards an easily avoidable issue.

While I disagree with Skyler Dye’s assessment of the situation and his philosophy on “color-blind” casting, I do agree that canceling the production solves nothing.

But what this situation at KSU does highlight is that casting equality on college campuses is still an ever-present issue. While BFA programs are doing a much better job of bringing in more diverse classes, many still aren’t providing the same amount of principal opportunities for POC’s as they are for white performance students. 

Because of this, for our college rankings this year, points were given to schools who we felt were focusing on making their programs more diverse. Perhaps ironically, Kent State University was ranked #18 this year.

It’s widely accepted that college BFA theatre programs need to do everything they can to accurately prepare their students for the professional theatre industry. And with many in the professional ranks making great strides in casting equality and correct representation, colleges needs to follow suit.