University play canceled after not having enough 'Latinx' actors

Kent State University canceled a production of "West Side Story" after students complained that the school assigned none of the major roles to "Latinx" students.

Theater students who decline their given roles are put on probation so aggrieved students did not have the option of turning down their roles without facing academic repercussions.

Kent State University canceled its fall production of West Side Story following complaints by students that the casting was insensitive to “Latinx” students.

West Side Story, a spin-off of Romeo and Juliet involving Polish-American and Puerto Rican street gangs, has a large number of Puerto Rican lead characters. Some students say Kent State’s School of Theatre and Dance should have given these roles to Latino and Latina students, according to Kentwired.

Students complained not only that none of the three Puerto Rican character lead roles were given to “Latinx” students, but also that some of the Puerto Rican character supporting roles were given to white students. Some complained that the school gave ensemble roles to white students instead of Latino and Latina students, some of whom received no part at all.

Kent State theater major and Latin/x in Theater President Viviana Cardenas auditioned for a lead role and was disappointed to find out that it was ultimately given to an African American student.

“It’s more than just getting a role,” she told Kentwired. “I don’t get to tell other people’s stories because of the color of my skin, but yet when there is this story that is about people of cultures like me, about people of color like me, and that gets taken away from me…that was the most heartbreaking.”

“I think the professors who made the decision wanted the best for the show, and that’s what they considered, and that’s it,” Cardenas added. “I think there are more things that need to be considered than just that.”

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Kent State puts theater students who decline their given roles on probation, meaning that they are barred from participating in any Kent State or outside theater productions.  Students upset about their casting because of racial reasons did not have the option of turning down their role without facing academic repercussions because of this rule.

The buzz surrounding the casting decisions spurred School of Theatre and Dance Director Eric van Baars to hold a town hall meeting on September 4. 

“I felt it was important that as a school we come together and talk about it…and come to some sort of decision to do next,” van Baars said.

Van Baars decided to cancel the production altogether and instead cast for Children of Eden, a musical based on the Book of Genesis with the goal of “telling a different story right now…that maybe has a message of more hope and positivity moving forward.”

Campus Reform spoke with Paul Appleby, president of All-In[clusive], a student group “dedicated to bringing attention to LGBTQ+ contributions to theatre” and officer of the Bachelor of Arts Theatre Student Alliance at Kent State. He praised van Baars’ decision.

It “reflects that the school is willing to listen and take accountability for mistakes and poor decisions,” Appleby said. “Obviously, changing the show doesn’t undo what was done in the first place, but this gives us an opportunity to move forward.

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Appleby commended van Baars for his communication and accommodation of student voices throughout the ordeal.

“We’re obviously at a very difficult time as a nation, especially with how we treat people of color, but I think the fact that the school decided to shut down West Side Story shows that when people raise their voices and make it clear what they are and aren’t willing to put up with,” he continued.  “When people see injustice and call it by name, we can actually make a change, and as a young person living in admittedly a pretty bleak environment politically, I think that’s a source of hope. And I hope that we continue to push for further justice. I hope this becomes a movement, not just a moment.”

However, Theatre Performance minor Skyler Dye says the decision reflects negatively on the university.  Acknowledging that while he never saw the names on the final cast list, and therefore could not speak to “whether they could pass as Puerto Rican or not,” he says people’s appearance should not be what matters. 

“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 added.

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.”

Campus Reform reached out to van Baars as well as the university for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @celinedryan