When You’re a Jet You’re a Rapist?
This post is part of the Theatre’s Rape Culture series.
Last May I saw my first production of West Side Story – the revival directed by the book writer Arthur Laurents that opened on Broadway in March of 2009 and is still playing at the Palace Theatre. Arthur Laurents is quoted in interviews as saying that his revival would be “…radically different from any other production of West Side Story ever done. The musical theatre and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity. Every member of both gangs was always a potential killer even then. Now they actually will be.”
Sitting in the darkened audience I never believed any of the members of either the Jets or the Sharks gang was a “potential killer” while watching the mostly (except for the dancing) mild production. The closest they came to bloodthirsty was the frenetic moves sung to “boy, boy, crazy boy, just keep it cool. But in Act II, scene 4 Anita is taunted by the Jets gang when she comes to their hangout to find Tony and give him a message from Maria. The scene suddenly turned violent as the Jet’s gang threw and pinned Anita to the ground then held her dress up so that actor playing A-rab could unzip his pants and force himself on top of her before being stopped by the entrance of Doc. Well, that’s where the show ended for me. The Jet’s aren’t potential killers they are potential rapists.
Not being able to shake the memory of that scene I went straight to the libretto on my bookshelf when I got home to see how the original scene was written. Here is the stage direction from the published libretto; The taunting breaks out into a wild, savage dance with epithets hurled at Anita who is encircled and driven by the whole pack. At the peak she is shoved so that she falls in a corner. Baby John is lifted up high and dropped on her as Doc enters and yells “Stop it!” The same scene in the original production clearly focused on threats and a mock rape instead of an actual one. Is a fake rape just as bad as a real one? Or is it worse? Let’s be clear, this original description involves the assault of a woman. The Jets use words and physical actions to induce fear and shame in Anita. The scene is about extreme racism and hatred. The way it was staged in the revival on Broadway – the unzipping of the pants, the lifting of the dress – diluted the power the scene had. The Jets and the Sharks are not potential killers no more than they are potential rapists. What they are is a bunch of small minded racists unable to see beyond their little worlds. They use their physical power to threaten and humiliate. The mock rape points to just how much power they don’t have. And it pisses Anita off big time. So much so that she lies to get back at them. She tells them that Maria is dead which leads to the final battle and Tony’s death.
Why does everyone from Broadway to High School stage this scene as a fully realized rape scene? Because rape culture does not allow us to see it as anything but such a scene. A lower class woman of color is only one thing to a gang of boys – a sexual object. Rape is a logical and expected release for pent up racial hatred. The shame and fear that the Jets are so good at provoking is sidetracked by directors thinking that staging a “real” rape will show the underlying racism. It doesn’t work. Anita isn’t a sexual object she’s just an object – a vile and disgusting object that the Jets want to rub in the mud.
West Side Story is a timely commentary on prejudice in American culture. The current production reinforces rape culture. When you’re a Jet you’re “the swingin’est thing, little boy you’re a man, little man you’re a king.” What you are is a rapist. That’s definitely not cool.
– Aphra Behn is the artistic director of Guerrilla Girls On Tour!