When a school decides there's no place for 'West Side Story'

You may have heard of Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts. That's my school - the one that recently canceled a production of "West Side Story" because Puerto Ricans found it offensive.

It's true that members of the Puerto Rican community protested the play's selection on grounds that it promotes racial stereotypes. It's true that, after a wrenching debate, the production has been shelved. But the story isn't really about political correctness or censorship.

Amherst has become a very diverse place. Latinos, African-Americans, and Asians make up 30 percent of the student body. As a result, the Amherst schools have undertaken a multiyear project that includes curriculum revision, professional development, and affirmative action.

In the spirit of these goals, the directors of the annual musical - one white, one black - chose "West Side Story." They thought it would appeal to a wider range of students than the typical Broadway show and attract students of color to participate in what has been a mostly white activity. They believed that the discussion the play would promote would be good for the school and community.

Instead, the response turned acrimonious. Critics argued that "West Side Story," based on "Romeo and Juliet," reinforces stereotypes of Puerto Ricans and, in the absence of more positive images of minorities on the school stage, should not be produced. Defenders countered that the very theme is that love can triumph over racial hatred.

The debate has raged in public meetings, in the media, and, of course, in our hallways and classrooms. The controversy has split nearly every constituency. Sadly, the issue has divided Puerto Rican students; those who would have performed were forced to pick sides.

The cancellation of "West Side Story" has disappointed musical-theater enthusiasts and outraged free-speech advocates, but the decision was wise. The directors concluded that the atmosphere had become so poisonous that it would have been nearly impossible for students to feel positive about the show. For their good, they graciously chose not to stand on principle.

I'm sorry there will be no production. It could have fostered dialogue about race relations, media images of minorities, and the purposes of the arts. Even some critics may regret the cancellation because they see the need for such dialogue. Now, most students have little appetite for further discussion.

By pure coincidence, my ninth-grade class was about to begin reading "West Side Story" when the controversy erupted. They worked to understand the debate, they carefully analyzed the script (a step neglected by many of the most vocal adults), and drew their own conclusions about racial content. Their maturity in addressing this issue reinforced my long-held belief that the best way to handle difficult topics is head-on, giving students the facts and the tools of interpretation. The school as a whole has missed a great opportunity.

What concerns me more, though, is the message sent to teachers. The musical's two directors are respected educators. Wendy Kohler has led several reform efforts and weathered many controversies; Jessel Murray has won numerous awards for teaching and for multicultural achievements. If such teachers can't be trusted to present "West Side Story" sensitively, who can be trusted with controversial issues?

It's risky to address subjects like race in school. Many teachers will conclude that the best way handle such matters is to avoid them.

Well-intentioned people are bound to have different approaches to promoting interracial understanding, and they may have good reason to critique one another's work. But they must respect and reinforce one another's efforts, not denounce them. Otherwise we are doomed to replay the plot of "West Side Story" forever.

*Bruce Penniman teaches English. He is 1999 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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