ROCHESTER — While the Rochester Latino Theatre Co.’s production of "West Side Story" has ended, the work of the project named for the movie musical will continue through the end of this school year.
Before the show’s opening in November, the company partnered with the city’s Department of Recreation and Youth Services to provide groups of youths from several of its community and recreation centers with a theater-based curriculum that focuses on conflict resolution, gang intervention and cultural education.
The project’s first group comprised girls from Avenue-D Recreation Center’s dance troupe, said Annette Ramos, cofounder of the theater company. She and José Casado, a writer and director, worked with the girls on scene improvisation and writing a sequel to the story.
The group watched the movie and later went to see a live performance of "West Side Story," explained Cynthia Rochet, a recreation department staffer who works with the Avenue-D group.
"The ability to see and hear the actors and see the scenery was a great experience, even a first experience for some," added Rochet, who said that about 15 girls participated in 10 sessions.
They also had conversations about how the show provided a glimpse into the moment in history when gangs started becoming more violent, Ramos added.
"Before then, a fair fight included only bottles, bats or knives," she said. "Guns and heroin changed (fighting) forevermore. And with the influence of the Mafia, guns became the norm of gangs. … We see it even in our own neighborhoods. All those girls literally have seen it."
That was new information about the show’s background for Ramos as well. Isabel Córdova, a Nazareth College assistant professor of history, spoke with the cast and explained how Puerto Ricans struggled when they began migrating here en masse in the 1940s and 1950s, Ramos said.
"She gave our cast tremendous insight and back story of why these Puerto Ricans fought so hard to find their place in American society," Ramos said.
She shared Córdova’s knowledge with those taking part in the Roberts Wesleyan College Community Theatre production of "West Side Story." Ramos’ presentation was part of a partnership that began earlier in the year between the college program and the Rochester Latino Theatre Co.
That partnership includes plans for the cast to visit a recreation center and talk with youths who are part of the "West Side Story" project and donating tickets for the kids to visit the campus and see the show, explained Pastor David Meyer, production manager for the college theater company, which was founded in 1998.
Doing such community service has been a longtime tradition of the college company, he added.
"An exciting part of program for us was when Annette came and spoke to our cast about Puerto Rican culture and Latino culture," he said. "That (information) helped them solidify their characters for the show, which was great as well."
Director Judith Ranaletta gives instruction during a rehearsal of "West Side Story" Dec. 16 at Roberts Wesleyan College in North Chili. The production opens Jan. 16.
Such insight also is important for young people today to hear because of the racial conflicts he has witnessed at schools where he has served as a resource officer, said Rochester Police Officer Moses Robinson.
"That has always bothered me," he said. "Somos una familia. (We are one family.)"
He and Ray Mayoliz, director of the city of Rochester’s office of youth outreach and violence prevention, present the conflict resolution and gang intervention component of the "West Side Story" project. When they talk to the kids as a pair, they said they are demonstrating why such tensions should not exist, as one is Puerto Rican and the other is African-American. Mayoliz also oversees Pathways for Peace, which has been working on violence prevention strategies since 1998.
"We talk about the connections between us — cultural and socioeconomic — and in terms of living in close proximity to each other," Robinson said.
The two men had been in talks to offer a similar program at recreation centers when Ramos approached them with the theater-based initiative, Mayoliz explained.
One of the major differences between the "West Side Story" era and now is the reaction to police sirens during any kind of incident, he added. In the "West Side Story" gang fights, all the characters involved flee the area, said Mayoliz while nowadays, people run to a scene to find out what happened and to record any action on their cell phones.
And research has shown how young people today are bombarded by violence instead of just having a scheduled "rumble," as in the show, Mayoliz said. For example, a 13-year-old urban youth is exposed to about 300 traumatic situations in his or her lifetime, he said.
"We always hear about kids being desensitized," Robinson said. "They’ve never been sensitized."
As the project moves forward in trying to reverse that reality, the organizers hope to get city schools involved. Ramos said that she is in talks with the Rochester City School District to develop an afterschool theater program for the following school year to complement existing programs run by the M. K. Ghandi Institute for Nonviolence.
Project participant Seyena Gutierrez, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at School No. 52, said that she would recommend the program to other youths. She said that learning about the history of discrimination against Latinos by other cultures was beneficial and how that can lead to "bad things" that they also discussed how to avoid.
"It taught me how to not hate other people and just be kind; it doesn’t matter what your skin color is or what culture," added Shalaia Edwards, 10, a fifth-grader at PUC Achieve Charter School.
Such lessons offer great tools to city youths, said Ramos.
"We use art and theater as a teaching tool to teach and work with and create dialogue around cultural identity, anti-gang behaviors and high-risk behaviors, safeguarding yourself with some tools around avoiding those high-risk behaviors," she said.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Rochester Latino Theatre Co.’s initiatives, visit http://somosrltc.org. For more information about Roberts Wesleyan College’s "West Side Story" production, visit www.roberts.edu/rwcct.aspx.