We decided to go on a “date” and he mentioned a play. But he wasn’t sure to make it since he had other events to attend. Right after knowing that he had been invited to give a speech at the beginning of the play, I sort of convinced him to go. “It should be fun seeing you there” I said.
Then he mentioned the play’s name: West Side Story. All I heard of it was about a boring Broadway show, with some Puerto Ricans characters dreaming of becoming part of the so-called American life, or something like that. No, this won't be fun. I thought.
My friend and I arrived at DC's National Theater on time, and the place was crowded and very bright, everyone was excited since it was the premiere night. A very tall man welcomed my friend, and when I tried to shake his hand - he looked the other way and just ignored me. "Oh no he didn't..."
A group of people stood by my friend to say hello – you see, he is a public figure and people like him a lot (with obvious reasons) but sometimes those people seem to just ignore me. That fact is fine with me, as I am a shy person. But oh yes, I forgot to mention: he is white European and I am brown Native Peruvian. And yes, I am a very extra sensitive queer.
Once inside I decided to take a photo of my friend with the tall man. They were delighted. Then as my friend was invited to walk up to the stage -you know for the speech- he asked me to follow him at all times.
At some point a woman appeared out of nowhere, and she ordered me to follow her. No actually, she commanded me: “You need to come this way!” in a rude fashion. Since my friend had asked me not to leave him, I just kept walking. Once backstage, the lady kept chasing me saying that I had to go with her because "You can’t take photos backstage!" she yelled –again in a veeery rude way. After my friend nodded and during a very confusing moment, I followed the weird woman.
“Lady I am not here to take photos... I am on a damn date” I thought.
I ended up standing all the way in the back of the theater, around some TV cameras and a group of very handsome ushers. I thought: "Why the fuck am I here? I should be with my friend..." but it was too late. By then, the theater was full and my friend was about to come out.
The rude lady –she looked whiter and freaked out this time, and her curly black hair was hanging like fettuccine pasta- reminded me "This is a very serious production and you can’t just walk back there!" Get a life lady...
I was about to leave the place, but instead I convinced a very attentive usher to take my photo. It wasn't a good idea considering the lights were down, but I guess I was trying to get distracted from the negativity around me. This time, another woman walks towards me: "You need to sit down right now!"
The play starts, I am seating in the middle of the room, I feel very disturbed, disrespected. Few minutes later, my friend joins me: “You should have stayed with me, I met all the cast members back there…” I am angry.
Oh yes, the play
West Side Story is a play about an interracial love relationship set in New York City: he is white (Polish ?) and she is Puerto Rican. They meet in the middle of some disputes among gangs in the city – in the beginning of the 1950’s.
As I am seating there, I just realized that I am part of an interracial couple, sort of.
The play starts, the cast members look great but not convincing me of being NYC 50 years ago. The actors -again- are very sexy and in great shape, and they dressed like models from The Gap or Abercrombie and… I thought they didn’t look like NYC kids in the 1950's so much. Perhaps.
The stage design looks very elaborated and convincing, the lighting was very well done, the sound was alright – I got the impression the singers were lip singing though. Still, the voices were nice to hear.
The leading actress (Maria) is a white girl from Argentina -What? Isn't there a single talented Nuyorican actress in the whole US to do the role?... Not to discriminate, but imagine if Jennifer Lopez does Evita or any other play about a Buenos Aires girl, in Argentina. Streets blockades and protests would occur probably, like it happened years ago with Madonna and her silly movie.
The crowd –mostly white Americans- seemed to enjoy the play. They are quiet.
Suddenly, two Puerto Rican girls appear on stage and people starts laughing, for no obvious reason. Hahaha. Well, that’s how the whole play goes on: every time a Puerto Rican character talks, walks, moves, breathes – never mind what they do- people just laughs, they celebrate how funny ways those “latinos” are. How funny?
I am angrier. I am trying hard to be calm and to enjoy the moment, but there is nothing to enjoy.
After 15 minutes, I am ready to go. My friend asked me to stay: "They invited us for drinks at the intermission…" By us, he meant “me” but he is trying to be polite and inclusive...?
The play goes on. It's so childish: kids dancing and jumping around, following a script proper of some Walt Disney production. It is so machista: bad boys trying to be bad, while women are so submissive (I know, it used to be that way…) It is so racist: white people showing how tough they can be while making Puerto Ricans look dumb, violent and comical. Words like "spic" are mentioned shamelessly and the word "immigrant" is said as an insult. Disgusting, tough call - someone said.
The intermission starts, I followed my friend. We go into an office where an old white man invites the small group to come in and seat down – except me. It seems that some people just don’t see me – hello? They all get drinks, while I am standing at the door very invisible. My friend looks at me and he is aware of my misfortune (Can you do something?). I prefer to made a signal to him “I am leaving…”
As I walked out of the theater I run into some of the play’s team members. I shout "your play is racist" and rushed into the street. Man! I needed to breathe some air, I needed to free myself and get away from a party I was so uninvited. I had no business there.
Yes, it was an awful date and it was truly a Northwest DC side story: racism is still alive in America, especially in its capitol city where hypocrisy is a talent, and a shallow mind is a strength for some. Not for me.
I saw my friend the next day, we are still talking. But I am not going to another ridiculously-stupid-play with him. And no, I won't get over my race issues: I deserve the same respect that I give to people, regardless of how they look - it's how I was raised and I refuse to become like some "Americans" and accept their wrong doing.
And if you want my advice, I suggest you don't waste your money in this play, unless you love cheesy bad theater with great music.
By the way, for the fans (not me) the WSS has its own website.
January 4, 2009.
I must add to this post the fact that my perception of the play is entirely personal and I can't force anyone to side with my concepts about race, identity, culture, art, music, and dance. I know what I like, even when I don't know everything.
But I want to explain why I wrote this post.
West Side Story is a cute version of interracial couples, a story that is Ok. for some as long as we (the non white people) play the roles set for us. For instance, would WSS be a success among white people, if the main male character was Puerto Rican, and the female was white? For some, it's a way to content everyone. But as time passes, the concept of racial equality has reached another perspective. What I see is that even in the most anti-racist attempts, there is still some hidden racism in America... and this happens as we enter the Obama-age.
The Washington Post published yesterday a front-page article titled "A West Side Story That Finally Speaks to Latinos". The article seems like an attempt of the Washingtonian-establishment to attract a favorable opinion about the play. It contains reviews from Puerto Ricans -mostly- who seem to be content with the fact that with this play, they are part of white people's world.
The article focused on the fact that the play is bilingual. So what? Most people of South, Central and Caribbean America, who live in the US, we speak and understand English. And don't say a thing about accents because everyone has one. And most of their US-born children hardly use Spanish. Things have changed, so adding bad Spanish (I feel pretty should be translated ME siento hermosa) is just one a meaningless thing.
Finally, the WP insists in calling us Latinos and Hispanics. It is a terrible mistake made by white Americans decades ago, and that eventually will fail. Latino means southern European, and Hispanic relates to the nationality of Spaniards.
In reality, most of the people from Mexico to Chile are descendants of the original Native peoples of this continent, one third are Black Afro descendants, and a minority are Europeans (not only Spanish), Arabs, Asians, east Indians, etc. We are a rainbow of cultures and races, but we are certainly not Latinos nor Hispanics only.
Some theater lovers think that because WSS has a great music and dancing content, it should be celebrated by all. I don't think so. Puerto Ricans are presented in this play -and all Spanish-speaking immigrants by association- as some bad ass gangsters and poor dumb kids who want to be like white people. It is bad theater presented in a fancy way. Just the way American history has being written, especially when it comes to racial issues.
The alternative? Respect, see each others as equals, and stop writing plays about other people's cultures without including their true voices.