In the Name of Love and Hate — Why West Side Story is Still the Unsurpassed Classic in Modern America Theater
“Bernardo was right, If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I’d walk by and spit on you.” — Anita, West Side Story
On February 10, Mariott Theater’s new production of West Side Story officially opened. With a whole house of theater enthusiastic and the entire press outreach effort tailored to push the production as Valentine’s Date Night, nobody wants to miss, I began wondering:
Is this what it’s about? The love? The fate? The Romeo and Juliet plotline that has been told and retold so many times, almost entirely out of its charm? Because frankly, I’ve never been the little girl dreaming of star-crossed love. And the bigger problem is that, as a Chinese immigrant in America, I found myself looking at Maria with contempt, and I found myself disgusted with the idea of Maria being so infatuated to the point she was willing to throw away her people, specifically her family, for the so-called true love.
Indeed, just like what Andrea Ramirez wrote for The Cut: “My first exposure to West Side Story left the taste of ashes in my mouth.”
Because walking into West Side Story for the very first in my life, I was somewhat expecting a fun, cute, cheesy, but acceptable romantic extravaganza. But instead, I found myself tore into pieces with tears, not in the mourning of the lovebirds, but in the grieving of the simple fact that today’s immigrants, myself included, are still living through the same amount of fear, conflict, and hatred, although, for the most time, in a more sugar-coated way.
Too Young to Know Love
If West Side Story has taught me anything about love, that is to not fall head over heels for someone you met for the first time at a gym dance. After all, a girl’s lack of experience, whether due to her culture or young age or both, sure makes her vulnerable and… if I may, foolish.
In Maria, I saw myself. Seven years ago, when I first came to the U.S., I was that little girl going to the school dance for the first time, believing my star-crossed lover was right around the corner, never knowing the first thing about love. We held our heads high, claiming we’ll betray the whole world for our one true love, putting ourselves on a pedestal like a sacrificing martyr.
It’s all in the name of love. So we tell ourselves as we wept through endless nights, horrified of our future, disguising a toxic, often predatory relationship as true romance.
After all, look at Maria.
It was her people or her love. It was “the world doesn’t understand us.” If only she realized that a mature man — a real man, would have stood by her side, respected her family, and put in hard work to bring resolution to all parties involved. And if only she understood that a mature woman — a real woman, would have navigated between her identity as a daughter, a sister, a foreigner, and a lover instead of surrending to an unnecessary Ultima.
An Infinite Paradox
Meanwhile, we see the infinite paradox inevitable between those embracing a new culture while protecting their roots. Is Anita’s “stick with your own kind” song irrational? Is Bernado’s fear unreasonable? But looking at the likes of the Jets, can you blame them for behaving like scared animals, ready to strike at first sight of danger?
When it comes to the narrative around immigrant psychology and immigration in general, people are too often looking in from the outside. Why? Because the inside look isn’t all that pretty. It isn’t all about being acceptive and open-minded. If an American girl is scared walking alone at night, an immigrant girl, very frequently, is scared of being alone with any man outside of her own kind in general. Yet, at the same time, these girls long to embrace the fun and vibrance of the United States as much as those who were born here, if not even more.
Thus, immigrant girls live under the infinite paradox of fear and desire, nostalgia and liberty, skepticism and idealism.
So, thanks to the extreme setup of Sharks and the Jets, and thanks to the stereotypical dreamy characters like Tony and Maria, thanks to the cringy outdated plotline — because otherwise, our attention may not have been drawn to the underlying narrative that, although never a direct intention, became inevitably powerful as it weaves the story together and pushes it forward.
Stick with your own kind — if only I could count how many times I’ve heard the same thing from my people.
You gotta let go and become part of a new culture — if only I could tell you how many times I’ve heard these encouragements from my friends of different origins.
In the Name of Love and Hate
As Tony’s lifeless body was carried off the stage in joint forces by the Jets and the Sharks, a seemingly “friendly future” gesture, the light dims and leaves Maria and Anita standing on the stage, facing each other with their backs.
To love and to believe. That is Maria.
To hate and to protect. That is Anita.
And there are yet millions of Marias and Anitas, and billions in between.
So, if you have yet seen West Side Story on stage, you should. The genius of “West Side Story” is not that it turned Romeo and Juliet into a modern love story with less childish drama (as Juliet fakes her death) —
— Oh, hell no.
The genius, and if I may be so bold — the unintentional genius of West Side Story is how casually it revealed the coexisting polarities faced by the immigrant population, most specifically, immigrant girls. It is the most unreasonable yet justified fear. It is the strongest love and desire for a better life where girls can have fun, blended with the darkest fear and hatred of being hurt and treated like disposable outsiders.
Yet whether it is in the name of love or hate, whether it is to prove a point or to pursue our dreams, we continue our life regardless, even if in the same fashion Anita and Maria ended up with: sharing the same blood and heritage, but facing the opposite.
So, go see West Side Story, specifically the Mariott Theater production. Forget about Romeo and Juliet, but hear the millions of Anitas, Reefs, and Bernados.
And live on. In the name of Love and Hate.
Mariott Theater. “West Side Story”. February 2022. https://www.marriotttheatre.com/show/west-side-story
RaFebruary 28ea. “West Side Story Can’t Be Saved.” The Cut. Vox Media. December 13, 2021. https://www.thecut.com/2021/12/west-side-story-is-not-for-puerto-ricans-like-me.html
Women’s Vision on News “Female friendship, stereotypes and rape culture in ‘West Side Story’”. February 28, 2014. https://www.womensviewsonnews.org/2014/02/female-friendship-stereotypes-and-rape-culture-in-west-side-story/