‘West Side Story’ cast opens in new HBCU Buzz panel


See West Side Story from December 10, 2021

With its release in December, Steven Speilberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is perhaps the most anticipated musical of the year! Follow lovebirds Tony and Maria through the classic story as they fall in love despite being caught in the midst of a fierce neighborhood gang rivalry. Oscar winner Speilberg directed and produced the film, while Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay!

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in WEST SIDE STORY from 20th Century Studios. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Our exciting HBCU Roundtable on West Side Story featured actresses Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita) and actor David Alvarez (Bernardo). If you’re familiar with the West Side Story play or the original 1961 movie, you’ll enjoy this set. In the film, Maria is first swept away by Tony, who tried to change his life after being a member of the racist Jets gang. But with his brother Bernardo at the helm of the rival Sharks gang, the relationship immediately becomes an issue. Through it all, in their shared apartment, it’s Anita doing her best to support the polarizing interests of brother and sister.

We had the golden opportunity to sit down with a few members of the film’s cast and selected several HBCU students to ask them the questions. From the question of the historical context of the film to what it takes to make it in the industry, the students wanted to cover it all. Comedian Kyle of the Mic moderated the panel discussion, with students representing HBCUs such as Bowie State University, Texas Southern University, Howard University and Grambling State University.

Cameron Nolan of Morehouse College: In the 1961 West Side Story movie, you could say that the central theme was to follow your heart, despite what the world may say. So as actors, actresses, performers – really creative in general, how do you stay encouraged in the pursuit of your dreams?

Anita: It’s an ongoing thing, every day is different, I can tell you that. I have personally worked in the industry for over 10 years and have had great success and it looks very bright on the outside, but you get to the bright moments, it’s a real roller coaster. So many different micro-attacks that I have experienced. It’s really intriguing how I present it. I was found to be ethnically ambiguous. I’ve been told I’m not black enough for one part, I’ve been told I’m not Latina enough for another part. But if I could just live in the gray, I was very engaging. So, I think at the end of the day, to continue in an industry where you don’t feel like you are seen, you have to have unwavering faith in yourself. The belief that you have something to offer and the realization that just because one door doesn’t open doesn’t mean another won’t. You keep breaking down doors until one door opens, or both doors open, and the people who see you are your people. And you start to change your mind, because if you change your mind, you can change another. Beyond that, there is no recipe. I don’t think there is a recipe for continuing to hold on to your dreams and take care of yourself!

David: I think a great thing is that it’s really about persistence. It’s about having confidence in yourself and in what you have to contribute. Because a lot of times people are not going to believe in you. They just won’t believe in you. And you have to be that person to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I can do this, I believe in myself, I know my worth, and I have a lot to offer this world.” So it’s a roller coaster ride like Ariana said. You have great moments, but behind those great moments are 1,000 moments of failure and it’s about not letting those failures get to you. I mean, now that we’re here it’s amazing to know that all of this hard work, all of these learning experiences and can be put to meaningful contribution, and also being a part of this project opens so many doors for so many communities can trust each other, be valued and respected. So I’m very lucky to be part of it and it’s not an easy race. It’s not an easy ride at all. But if you love art, if you love what you do, it’s worth it in the end.

A scene from 20th Century Studios WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All rights reserved.

Rachel: It’s remembering that the success of others is by no means your failure. Root for your friends, we notice. It’s getting out of the good and getting back the good. The universe works in a very real way. But it’s also a lot of hard work and it’s not just every attempt it doesn’t show up. You know in my case it doesn’t show up at every audition for others but it shows up for myself and I make sure I’m there and I’m centered and ready because I can’t give myself to 100% if I am not 100%. So take care of yourself above all else and don’t forget to support the successes of others as well. Learn from them.

Kendal Robinson from Howard University: West Side Story was deemed important by the United States Library of Congress and was also selected for the National Film Registry in 1997. In this film can we expect the same impact and meaning as in the Steven Spielberg film 2021, and also what culturally relevant themes can we expect to see?

Rachel: I think it still has the same cultural relevance, so I would expect our film to have the same impact, but there is also a cultural sensitivity but I think the 1961 film was sorely lacking. This is how culture is represented on all fronts. There was a big overhaul of the historical context that was done with Tony Kushner’s screenplay and it was a real conversation around racial tensions, political tensions, social tensions, the climate of 1957 for someone and the Robert Moses’ demining project that moved low-income communities out of their homes if you lived in twenty blocks to get away from the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which was a business of rich white people, whom all those low-income communities that were forced to leave their homes could not even appreciate. So not only is that the reason I think it will have a cultural impact, because it’s a conversation that’s still going on and we still have surrounding gentrification today. But it’s also the kind of cultural conversation one would expect from our film.

The full roundtable conversation is now available on our HBCU Buzz YouTube, so be sure to tune in. Equally important, be sure to watch the new one West Side Story in theaters from December 10, 2021!


About Norma Wade

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