(WARNING: The following article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and explicit language)
On February 6, 2020, the Broadway revival of West Side Story will open at the Broadway Theatre. While much of the interest in this show will be Ivo Van Hove’s “creative” staging of the iconic piece, what shouldn’t be glossed over is the controversial casting of Amar Ramasar. When Ramasar takes his first bows as Bernardo, it will have been just a year and a half since he was fired from the New York City Ballet for sharing nude photos of a female company member without her knowledge or consent.
Yet, in typical professional theatre industry fashion, the powers-that-be decided that talent trumps unethical behavior, no matter how vile.
So when Ramasar takes his first bows, I encourage you to give him the reception he deserves - boo him.
If my reaction seems extreme, I feel it’s only the proportional response to the actions of Ramasar.
According to court documents, on May 21, 2018, Ramasar sent a bare-breasted picture of a female NYCB company member to fellow dancer Chase Finlay after he requested that Ramasar “send me that pic of her.” Ramasar would share two more pictures with Finlay that same day.
To me, this breach of someone’s privacy is egregious and certainly warrants termination from any job, let alone with the NYCB. In fact, they did the right thing and fired Ramasar and the other dancers involved following an internal investigation.
However, the dancers’ union The American Guild of Musical Artists, challenged the firing and brought the issue to arbitration where it was ruled that NYCB’s punishment was too severe and Ramasar was allowed to come back to his old job as one of the top-ranking dancers in the company.
“This was a complicated situation,” the union said in the statement. “We pursued this case because it’s important to us that your employer is prevented from taking extreme and potentially career-ending action based on non-criminal activity in your private life.”
This is where Ramasar’s case gets tricky — as of July 24, 2019, sharing another person’s private nude images online is now a Class A misdemeanor in New York. Victims will also be able to obtain an order of protection, and file for workplace harassment if the offender is a colleague.
However, Ramarsar’s texting occurred before the law was signed, so he can’t be charged now. Even if he did send those texts now, the law has some particular parameters when it comes to intent that would make it hard to prosecute. The law is framed to criminalize “revenge porn,” which defines spreading non-consensual pornography as a form of harassment, meaning that the defendant has to act with “the intent to cause harm” to fall under the new law’s purview. Given the nature of the texts, Ramasar wasn’t doing that, which is what many critics of the law are saying. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s research has shown that about 80 percent of non-consensual pornography actually gets shared as impersonal entertainment, and by strangers rather a vengeful ex. Also, the fact that the images were shared over text rather than posted online would throw a wrench into any prosecution.
So had this all gone down after the law had passed, we might have gotten the same outcome - a slap on the wrist and more high profile castings.
For his part, Ramasar hasn’t apologized but has acknowledged this as poor judgment and a mistake to learn from. But not before trying to justify it by saying that it occurred outside of work and that the woman involved consented to have her picture taken. I’m going to assume, however, that the woman didn’t consent to have that pic texted between male dance colleagues.
I’ll be honest; I was shocked that Ramasar was cast in West Side Story. So were plenty of others, who shared their disdain of the decision publicly on social media or privately to me. Plenty of female performers told me they would have a tough time trusting Ramasar if they were cast with him. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that after the betrayal he discharged.
Alisa Hurwitz said it best when she called for a boycott of West Side Story:
“How can there be a “place for us” when that place is fundamentally unsafe? Acting requires trust and safety. The show’s producers have allowed a man known to disrespect and mistreat women to rehearse, hold, touch, lift, share scenes, and change backstage with female cast members. How can you put these women in harm’s way, even if that harm is the perception of being unsafe, in good conscience? What will you do to ensure that your female cast members feel and are safe?”
Those are valid questions to ask. Which begs me to ask why the creative team decided to ignore this issue and cast Ramasar? Sadly it’s this type of inane decision making we’ve grown accustomed to in the professional theatre industry. Apparently, Ramasar was such a rare talent that his recent troubles would never stand in the way of casting him.
The professional theatre industry does a better job of punishing whistleblowers of sexual misconduct than the perpetrators they’re reporting. And when the industry does that, it only leads to silenced victims and continuous abuse.
So it’s about time we as a paying audience made a statement. Yes, we can certainly boycott the production. Empty seats would certainly send a message to producers. At the same time, those empty seats will just be filled with audiences willing to also overlook Ramasar’s issues, so the protest will go unnoticed by the powers-that-be. I also have a tough time punishing the rest of the cast, many of whom are making their Broadway debuts. It should be noted that I haven’t seen a single one of them praise Ramasar’s casting.
So I’m opting for a more direct response to Ramasar himself, simply boo him when he comes out for his curtain call. Make him, and everyone hear your disdain that he’s involved in this production. Boo so loudly that it makes a statement that this sort of awarding work to these type of individuals isn’t going to be stood for anymore. Go as far as turning your back on him when he comes out of the stage door.
The message needs to be sent to the Broadway powers-that-be that this type of behavior and action isn’t going to be tolerated anymore. Make them hear you and boo Amar Ramasar.