West Side Story and Latinx Artists

As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.

This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.

‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.

This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.

Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.

In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”

We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.

We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.

While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.

We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.

The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.

We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.

In this together,

The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
AllianceofmnLatinxartists@gmail.com

#RULooking?’

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