Last night I took Samuel to see West Side Story at North Carolina Theater in Raleigh. He’ll get school credit (once he writes a report about it); I got to see (and hear) a classic musical with several iconic songs and impressive choreography. The lead actors had terrific voices and played their parts with skill and feeling.
I wish the play left me feeling better. I’d seen West Side Story before, but had forgotten how dark it is and how sad the ending. Essentially, it’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reset in a New York ghetto neighborhood of the 1950s, with the Montagues and Capulets replaced with two street gangs, one of white kids (the Jets) who think they are the true Americans, and the other made of first generation Puerto Rican immigrants (the Sharks). Both gangs want control of the same neighborhood and neither wants to share; prejudice runs deep and the inter-ethnic hatred is visceral.
When Tony (who founded the Jets with friend Riff) falls head over heels in love with Maria (whose brother Bernardo leads the Sharks), the stage is set for trouble, and trouble happens. Tony’s eyes are opened and he tries to persuade the gangs to get along, but before the play is over Riff is dead, Bernardo is dead, and in the closing scene, Tony is dead.
There are hints of growing acceptance between gang members here and there, or at least of a growing awareness that prejudice is wrong, but the nascent hope of a better day isn’t enough to stop the violence.
More than 50 years after West Side Story first debuted, ethnic divides are largely unabated. There continues to be mutual and suspicion and rejection among the various ethnic groups that are predominant not only in America, but in the world. People die every day because of it.
There are hints, here and there, of greater understanding or acceptance, but true harmony remains a distant hope, visible only in the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God.
Christians — who have all-too-often been major contributors to the problem — have a lot of work to do if we’re to take seriously the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”