Thursday, April 26, 2012

West Side, West Side

I'm listening to the original cast album from West Side Story. The stage play is coming to town and we're going. And I'm juiced up about it.

I fell for the film when I first saw it, when I was nine or ten, I guess. I immediately loved the music, the dance, the story. I remember wishing that the gangs had been White and Black, instead of White and Puerto Rican. It never occured to me that they ought to have been Black and Puerto Rican. Which is a revealing detail, because part of the thrill of the movie was that we'd lived right there, on the upper west side of Manhattan. Rumour had it that part of the shoot took place at P.S. 166, the elementary school my brother and I had gone to.

But we were living in West Berlin, the west side of the German city that was isolated in the middle of East Germany, at the time we went to the movie theatre that served the US military community and saw West Side Story. In Berlin, we were practically the only people of colour where we lived and went to school. Diversity existed for us there through my Mom's show biz world and the artists from around the world who came into our lives. But we were very aware of living in a country that was carved up and occupied, and that the privilege to simply move about was determined by the kind of passport you had, and by invisible lines across the land.

But in New York, our friends and the families we interacted with were mostly black, and on the dense upper west side, where neighborhoods and ethnicities were jammed right up against one another, there were Puerto Ricans and Italians, Jews and Greeks. And I guess, to be more accurate, we were Negroes back then, or Coloured, terms that sound and taste so strange now.

At that time, one didn't go to a movie and expect to see a Black face. Or a Puerto Rican one. So it's a simple internalization of the racism of the time, that I couldn't even imagine a film that would've pitted two minorities against one another in the prinicple roles, and left out Whites altogether. For me, when I watched the film, the immigrant gang, the Sharks, and their families, represented me and mine. They were the Black folks in the film, just like the Indian characters in the westerns I saw back then were the metaphorical Black folk. (And, to carry the analogy way forward, it was Worf, the angry man from a despised culture, and struggling to know himself, who was the Black dude in Star Trek: The Next Generation, not Giordi.)

Another revealing detail about race and its treatment: a few members of the cast of West Side Story were Puerto Rican, including Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita. But it was determined that Moreno and all the others who played Puerto Ricans would have cosmetics applied to give them nearly identical complexions. This doesn't at all reflect the diversity that one sees in Puerto Ricans, but it was done, of course, so that the actors would appear more Puerto Rican to the audience.

Love the movie anyway! Watching the updated Romeo and Juliet played out to the dancing and music of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein was thrilling to me. It still is. I've seen the film a hundred times, but I've never seen it staged. So I'm playing the album to wind me up, for the whole cast rendition of "Tonight", for the artsy styling of "Cool". And for "America" and "Officer Krupke", two tunes that beautifully skewer the hypocrisies and delusions of the American Dream, bringing a whole new dimension to Shakespeare's tragedy.

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