Starting with ‘West Side Story,’ Asolo Repertory Theatre explores what it means to be American and how to address one of our most sensitive subjects: race.
The Jets and the Sharks are meeting to negotiate the terms of a final free-for-all rumble. As the gangs discuss the conditions, the mood is tense — but not tense enough. Director Joey McKneely breaks it up. The energy in the room isn’t boiling enough for the director and choreographer of Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of “West Side Story.”
McKneely doesn’t direct from the safety of his chair; he has a dancer’s intuition, and he gives direction through movement. He stands in as a gang member, pushing, yelling and staring right into his actors’ eyes. It’s an edgy moment, but that’s the point. If the musical’s message of love conquering prejudice is going to prevail, the danger needs to feel real.
McKneely hopes to use the power of theater to inspire cultural change.
“If ‘West Side Story’ was created today, it would still have the same power,” he says. “Kids are still killing kids, and the idea of ‘We don’t want that kind’ is still with us.”
The American Character
In March, after Michael Donald Edwards announced this season’s lineup, one theme quickly rose to the forefront: race.
The Asolo Repertory Theatre producing artistic director says he didn’t choose the theme intentionally, but as he and his staff began compiling a list of potential plays for the fourth year of the theater’s “American Character” project, he recognized a responsibility to address how race factors into the equation.
The five-season project, launched in 2012, explores what it means to be American through a careful selection of plays and musicals.
This season features productions of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “All The Way,” “Disgraced” and the world premiere of the Josephine Baker bio-musical, “Josephine,” all of which feature race as a key theme.
And according to Edwards, opening this season with “West Side Story” Nov. 10 was a great opportunity to put race in the spotlight.
“These plays are not history lessons,” he says. “They’re connecting to larger themes of where the country is right now, where it’s been, and where it’s going.”
Kicking off this season’s theatrical dialogue on race is McKneely, a Tony Award-nominated choreographer and director who has been a performer and choreographer on Broadway since the late 1980s. Asolo Rep tapped McKneely to direct and lead the choreography for “West Side Story,” as well as “Josephine,” one of the final shows of the repertory season.
Two weeks into rehearsal, McKneely is conditioning his actors to absorb the passion of the story, the rhythm of the music and the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography. He gets right next to his actors and works alongside them to ensure the acting and dancing are true to the original choreography he learned from Robbins himself in 1989.
For the actors, who are immersed in the lives of the musical’s characters, it’s more than just a role. Amos Wolff, who’s playing the part of Jet gang leader, Riff, says the lessons of racial divide are always present in his mind.
“There’s something about our society that’s been there since slavery — and still is today — that’s about putting down some ‘other’ to make ourselves feel better,” he says. “‘West Side Story’ is a cathartic experience for an audience. Hopefully they get to see some of those prejudices played out onstage.”
While McKneely and his cast are rehearsing for opening night, Kathryn Moroney, education and outreach director for Asolo Rep, and her team are preparing to help Sarasota audiences digest the complex themes of race, national identity and immigration that play out during the show. The storyline features white and Puerto Rican gang members battling over neighborhood territory.
After each show, the theater will host community talks, titled “IllumiNation Series,” which will feature community experts and representatives. Each talk is free after the show and will unpack what was said and seen onstage and relate it to the everyday lives of audience members.
“It felt like the energy of this season, and where we’ve gone throughout the entire American Character project, invited us to dedicate attention to not only the artistry, but also to the issues of these plays,” she says.
Moroney and Edwards hope these discussions will generate conversation and help change audience members’ perspectives on race and prejudice. In her opinion, the real final act of any production happens after the curtain falls and the actors take their bows, when audiences discuss the show and absorb the show’s message.
And for Edwards, the heart of the “American Character” project is about more than entertainment: It’s about having an impact.
“I think we have to be ready for a grown-up conversation,” he says. “I think we can talk about these difficult things in the theater that may be difficult in any other context.”