Backstage: Bátiz-Benét dedicated to getting the (West Side) Story straight

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews Mercedez Bátiz-Benét, artistic consultant for West Side Story.

When managing artistic director Caleb Marshall invited Mercedes Bátiz-Benét to become the artistic consultant for West Side Story, the Canadian College of Performing Arts production of the landmark Broadway musical that closes the College’s 21st season, it made perfect sense.

Like the international students who are featured opposite Canadian classmates, the multi-lingual Mexico-born writer, director, editor and artistic director of Puente Theatre knows what it’s like, after all, to be an immigrant trying to find her way in the theatre world here.

“I came here when I was 19 by myself, and I didn’t know anyone, so it just takes me back,” recalls Bátiz-Benét, whose theatre company provides a scholarship for an international student each year and employment opportunities for alumni who have come here from other countries.

“I feel it’s my duty, and a privilege, to be a helping hand, to guide them and help them get a foothold in the theatre scene. I remind them that being from somewhere else is an asset, and that in Canada we embrace multiculturalism.”

As artistic consultant on West Side Story, Bátiz-Benét’s objectives include ensuring the musical’s cultural aspects are accurately and sensitively portrayed and providing historical background on Latin culture.

She has reminded the cast made up of Year I and Year II students that while the most high-profile immigrants in the show set in New York in 1957 are members of rival gangs the Jets, many of whom are Polish, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Ricans, they aren’t the only immigrants.

“I’m there to help guide the process and the cast about Puerto Rican culture and why Puerto Ricans started immigrating to the U.S. I’m showing them how men act, how women act, and trying to give them perspective on what an immigrant goes through.”

She said she has pointed out how the Jets, as Polish immigrants, are also being regarded.

“They are also being treated as garbage, and they’re running away from a horrible fate, but they arrived a bit earlier. It’s a microcosm of the world at large. Unless you are First Nations or Mayan we are all immigrants.”

While the West Side Story cast includes international students such as Isabella Giampaolo, who was born in Italy and raised in Switzerland; Pedro M. Siqueira, from Brazil; and Mexico-born Regina Rios, Fernando Jimenez and Richard Caballero, Bátiz-Benét says that while cultural heritage is something to be proud of, it often upstages other performing arts essentials.

“It’s not about whether someone’s from Puerto Rico. That’s not what gets them the role. It’s their talent and commitment. We have an Italian, a Brazilian and two Canadians, and what I told everyone on day one is that we’re all immigrants. A good play is a good play and it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is,”

Bátiz-Benét, who is also helping students with Spanish dialect, says while offensive mistakes have been made in popular culture – notably in Hollywood, where Caucasians have often been cast as racially stereotyped Mexicans or American Indians – it’s important to put things in context.

She cites as an example the casting of a white American actor – a brown-faced Charlton Heston as drug enforcement agent Mike Vargas, the “good” Mexican surrounded by racist Latino or Hispanic stereotypes in Orson Welles’ classic 1958 crime thriller Touch of Evil.

“If you talk about Touch of Evil, it was offensive but that was the norm then and, right now, we need to educate the public. I’m okay with people making mistakes as long as we can keep the conversation going. It’s a mistake if we get to a place where people are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing they stop trying to engage with the culture, and that’s what Caleb is doing – inviting stakeholders who have something to say and can help guide that conversation.”

Bátiz-Benét hopes audiences will look beyond skin colour and the elements of racism and bigotry addressed in West Side Story through music, dialogue and dance numbers.

“It’s really about love and belonging, and it’s about the fear that they are all operating under, of not belonging, of not being accepted, of what they are escaping from.”