Simpson freshman joins ‘West Side Story’ after criticisms of lack of diversity


(Photo: Submission/Brent Nery)

by Emily Carey, Special to The Simpsonian

DES MOINES, Iowa — A Simpson freshman is honored by his involvement with the Des Moines Playhouse production of “West Side Story” this fall in Des Moines, despite the controversy it faced.

Brent Nery played the role of Indio, a member of the Shark gang. This was Nery’s first production at the Des Moines Playhouse.

“Performing in the show and being a freshman in college is very difficult. There are times that I’m very stressed out but I somehow manage to still be on top of academics,” Nery said. “I just have to believe that I can do it; that is the only way. I chose to be a part of this show. I am committing myself to this show.”
Nery said it is an honor to be in such a challenging and well-known show.

“It is known as one of the greatest musicals of all time and it takes talented people to do it, which is why I feel honored to be in the cast. The music is written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, two of the greatest musicians ever,” he said.

“As someone who personally adores dancing, it was my favorite part of the show,” Nery said.

The winner of three Tony Awards, a Grammy and numerous others, “West Side Story” is a musical featuring a widely diverse cast and difficult choreography.

The production of “West Side Story” has been controversial since the beginning. The musical follows two rival gangs: The Sharks (a Latino group) and the Jets (a Caucasian group). The Des Moines Playhouse production features a predominantly white cast. Because of the white casting of Latino parts, the production has caused issues with many locals.

The Des Moines Playhouse cast two Latino actors, but they backed out of the production due to lack of diversity.
After the production was cast, the Des Moines Playhouse held a public forum to discuss how the theater could work to improve the diversity of their cast. Among those forum attendees was Alex Piedras, who asked that “West Side Story” not be produced.

“As a Latino man, I will tell you having ‘White Side Story’ will be not only an insult to us, but down the road you will never get us into the Playhouse for years,” Piedras said at the forum according to The Des Moines Register.
The Des Moines Playhouse continued to rehearse and perform the show.

“I happen to respect both sides of the situation. I totally understand that we need to respect how the characters are represented, however, we also need to know that it takes talent.

“‘West Side Story’ is a hard show to put on, and it needs the right talent and actors to do it,” Nery said.
The Des Moines Playhouse hosted three auditions, hoping to get more Latino actors to audition.

“The Playhouse then just decided to go with what they have: talented actors who are willing to put on a challenging show and tell the story of ‘West Side Story,’” Nery said.

Despite the controversy, Don McLeese, who reviewed the show for The Des Moines Register, said though the production is inauthentic, it is still entertaining.

“The entertaining and climactically moving revival of ‘West Side Story’ by the Des Moines Community Playhouse features some fine singing, energetic dancing, inventive staging and an engaging cast,” he wrote.
Nery said, “I am proud of being a part of this amazing production that made me a better performer and a better person.”