By Margie Johnson
Set in the 1950’s, West Side Story features the rivalry between two gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City. Although they face a common enemy, the police, the hostility between the two groups is palpable. Both groups consist of all male teenagers but differ in ethnicity. These groups, with the exception of a few minor characters, ultimately form the ensemble of the production. The Jets, led by their leader Riff, feature an all white gang who have grown up in the Upper West Side for their entire lives. In contrast, the Sharks, led by their leader Bernardo, are Puerto Rican and recent immigrants to the country. Throughout the story, the Jets attempt to dominate their neighborhood through the power granted by their whiteness and their status as the established ethnic group. The Sharks, however, utilize the strength of their community bounded by their culture and immigrant status to push back against this hostile environment, illustrating that when faced with the overpowering forces of assimilation, one must cling to their culture to survive.
The Jets utilize their white privilege to intimidate and assert their authority. In the very first scene, the camera pans to the Jets leaning together against a chain fence. The members are silent and snap in unison, creating a singular crack amidst the introductory music. Every step taken falls in a pattern amongst the other members, signifying the connection they feel to the ground they walk on. When striding across the court, the group collectively walks into an ongoing basketball game. The Jets stare silently in unison, creating a sense of hostility towards the harmless teenagers. As a result, the teenagers flee from the scene, leaving the ball to the Jets as they immediately begin a basketball game of their own. Now that the Jets have won the smaller battle and taken over the basketball court, they have nothing to prove and can move more freely and individually. Thus, as the brilliant choreography and staging brings to life, every movement made by the gang is calculated and used as a performance to showcase their power and superiority, as shown in the lyrics sung by the ensemble in the high energy dance and song, “here come the Jets little world step aside.” By compiling the members into a singular unit, the Jets are able to concentrate the power into an overwhelming force. This force follows every move made by their leader, Riff. When walking down the street away from the court, the group begins their usual pace of snapping and walking in unison. As the music quickens, however, Riff introduces new moves into the flow of movement. Immediately after doing so, a few members of the group copy his exact move, followed by the rest of the members following suit. They do so in front of audiences of smaller children along the sidewalk, again emphasizing that these movements signify a physical show of power. The movement made by the Jets’ leader ripple through the crew of gang members who will do anything to serve him as he attempts to rule his part of the city. The sea of movement with waves of one particular course through the ensemble prevents any outliers or outsiders from joining the group, particularly if they do not fit the white male mold. For example, teenager Susan Oakes desperately wishes to be a Jet. Although she is allowed to follow the group around the city, she is never able to participate and is repeatedly told to go home. When pleading to the gang to accept her after fighting alongside them in the first encounter with the Sharks, one member retorts to the group, “how else is she gonna get a guy to touch her?” Susan’s whiteness grants her the limited authority to follow the group along and listen to their meetings, but she is precluded by her gender from being fully accepted as a Jet. Thus, it is the strict homogeneity of race and gender of the Jets that allow them to carry a sense of superiority over the population of the Upper West Side and reinforce a dominant hegemony.
In complete contrast, the Sharks, led by Bernando, express their dominance through the vibrance of their cultural traditions. One tradition, for example, is the fluidity of their dancing. During a dance event held for both the Sharks and the Jets, both gangs are ordered to dance with the opposite gender of the other gang. Male Sharks are expected to dance with female Jets just as male Jets are expected to dance with female Sharks. Although ordered to do so, once the music begins, the gangs immediately divide and the respective gang members pull away their original partner. When it is the Sharks’ time to dance, the female and male dancers flow in one unit, with each kick, jump, or twirl intertwining with their partner’s. Just as they stand together as a gang, they move together in dance; emphasizing their refusal to let go of their LatinX culture. In contrast, the Jets move with great exuberance and American self confidence, but with flailed arms and legs. Instead of moving as one unit as seen with the Sharks, the females and males each take turns showing off their moves. For example, after a long dance period of the Sharks, the Jets barge right through the middle, breaking apart the group of Sharks in the process. As they do so, the male Shark completes a flip while his female partner twirls beside him, suggesting that their dance is for the attention of the audience rather than their attraction. Further, when nobody is watching other than the audience of their own gang, the Sharks break out into another dance number with both the males and females. The females, specifically Anita, take over a large portion of the song, with female members chiming in with their own unique lines and dance moves. A dance scene similar to this one featuring the Jets, however, is never shown throughout the entire production. Instead, the majority of the dancing with the Jets is seen with just the male members of the gang for the benefit of their rival gang, further emphasizing the Jet’s need to prove their validity. Just as the Sharks have arrived together in America, they will stay together in America, surpassing the need for fear and intimidation to unify. Even their name implies lurking danger and threat while the Jets’ name implies surging of power.
Once settled into America, the female members of the Sharks desperately desire to adopt an American lifestyle. Despite their attempts, however, they will never be accepted by the Jets or by the surrounding community due to their lack of “American” style, clothing, language (without accent), and skin color. After the first scuffle with the Jets at the beginning of the film, a police officer tells Bernardo to “get [his] friends out of here.” In one swift sentence, a sense of hostility has been established between the officer and the Sharks. They, Bernardo’s “friends” who look and speak like him, are not welcomed “here”, in America. During a song titled, “America,” Anita and the other female members describe the luxuries they now possess after moving to Manhattan. From skyscrapers to Cadillacs and washing machines, the women rave about their passion for their newfound home and do so in cheerful song and dance. They are reminded in a call and response type dance number, however, by the male members about the limitations to their luxuries as immigrants. After every response by the males, the group breaks into shouts and cheer. In one line, Bernando states, “life is all right in America if you’re all white in America.” Instead of being feared and respected by the community just as the Jets are, Anita notes that they are reduced to “foreigners.” She does so shaking her head and hands in disgust, erupting a response from the gang to shout, “Lice! Cockroaches!” While the ensemble carries out the tune in a joking and playful manner, all of the members acknowledge that they will never fully obtain the American dream that they crave. They must, then, rely on their tightly bound Latino community for survival in their new and unwelcoming environment.
West Side Story highlights the animosity between the established group (Jets) and the newcomers (Sharks) in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements and clashes. Although full of vibrance and passion, the Sharks will never fully be accepted into the Upper West Side by the Jets or by the surrounding community. As a result, they must rely on their gang, bound together by their culture, in order to face the challenges associated with their immigrant status. In contrast, the Jets are able to strike fear and intimidation into their community due to the privilege and power granted by their whiteness, and do so through performative and unified dance. It is not until the grave instances of life or death as seen in the final moments of the production with Tony’s passing, that the gangs are able to see past their racist and nationalistic cultural differences. This calls into question, then, when can the strength of a community surpass the limitations of racist ideals? Can two cultures, rooted in hatred for cultural differences, truly be unified or even allowed to coexist?