KENT, Ohio - Kent State University decided to replace its planned fall performance of the classic musical "West Side Story" with a different production, in part because of concerns over the students who were chosen to play key roles in the cast.
"West Side Story" set in New York City in the 1950s and is a love story involving two rival street gangs.
"We have a large musical theater program with over 90 students so the selection of musicals allows over a four year period to look at different genres, different musical styles, different dance styles. And we selected "West Side Story" because of the challenges it provides both musically, dramatically and choreographically," said Eric Van Baars, the university's theater director.
But some on campus became upset after the school decided to cast non-Latino students for roles in the musical's Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Among them is Paul Applebee, president of Kent State's All-In(clusive) Theatre.
"Our student body, as a collective, came together and students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds made it clear that we valued our Latinx brothers and sisters enough not to tell a version of their story that didn't include them," Applebee said.
Van Baars explained the casting decisions were made based on which of the candidates the directors felt could best fill the roles.
"Some of them are vocally demanding. Some of them are choreographically demanding. All roles in 'West Side Story' are dramatically demanding. And so we have many students who could do it and the faculty looked at these, felt at the time this was the best cast they could assemble under the time we had," Van Baars said.
Van Baars said the history of the production has been one of adapting the story and its characters to different cultural influences at the time.
"Initially, 'West Side Story' was slated to be 'East Side Story,' a story about a Polish-American boy and a Jewish woman," Van Baars said.
The casting decisions created enough of a conflict that the school gathered 300 people from the theater department and throughout campus to talk over what needed to be done.
"We looked at the decision... do we recast? Do we go back? Do we accept the cast? There were no clear-cut answers of what everyone wanted to do and I certainly didn't take, 'Let's please the majority' role. This wasn't about making a popular decision. As a school director, I just felt that changing the title was the best decision for us and moving into something that allowed everyone to have representation and be seen," Van Baars said.
The university decided to use the same cast but change the musical to "Children of Eden," a production based on biblical characters.
"The decision to change the shows was in no way meant out of disrespect to anyone who had been cast in 'West Side Story,'" Applebee said. "The environment was never 'us against them' or 'them against us.'"
"We saw an injustice and we took action to resolve it in a peaceful way. All of us, including the white performers who had been cast in lead roles. They had a voice in this too and it was a voice of wanting to do right by those who had been shorthanded," Applebee said.
The decision to change the production has upset some outside of campus, prompting racially-charged emails and social media posts to students and the university.
"Some of the reactions from people, again not affiliated with Kent State at all, have been blatantly racist. They have been attacking out students and attacking others here when they don't really have all of the facts," said Eric Mansfield, Kent State University spokesman.
The new production is scheduled to begin on Nov. 2 and Van Baars said all of the theater students are supporting one another, regardless of whether they were selected for lead roles.