White Fever Dreams

The distortions of black and brown lives in the white imagination

Roxane Gay
Jan 31, 2020 · 10 min read
Illustration by Christina Yoseph

The new West Side Story revival attempts to reinterpret the classical music for a contemporary audience in a fraught political climate. It is Romeo and Juliet, but with tattoos and ripped clothing and barely suppressed rage rolling beneath the skin of every character. It is a story of old immigrants versus new immigrants, and how people living on the margins are forced to fight for the little scrap of the world they share. The cast is multiracial and the Sharks are played by actual people of color instead of white actors in brown face so that, I suppose, is progress. The Jets are not just disaffected white men but also black.

The stage is vast and ominously bare. The most interesting parts of the set — Doc’s store and the bridal shop, are found deep into the stage and parts are hidden from view. When action takes place in those spaces, it is projected onto massive screens, stretching across the stage. Sometimes, cast members film the action on stage. Other times, pre-recorded segments supplement the live action. Like far too many shows in recent years, West Side Story relies heavily, too heavily in fact, on projections that are expected to do the work stagecraft should.

Tonally, this West Side Story is significantly different from the original. “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is the most reimagined and affecting number. In the original, the song is supposed to be a farcical but prescient romp. In this revival, it becomes a commentary on police brutality and what it means to live in a surveillance state. The staging of this number is smart, if a bit heavy-handed, and a necessary reminder of the ways black and brown men are imperiled by systemic racism.

Taken one way, fear is this revival’s center of gravity and the talented cast acquit themselves well to the task. The choreography is frenetic and electrifying. The singing is raw, rough and angry. As dancers, the cast is uniformly talented though not every cast member has a strong enough voice to handle the show’s vocal demands. Shereen Pimental, as Maria, is the real standout. Her voice is flawless, and she has a magnetic stage presence. Tony, played by Isaac Powell, is a formidable actor with genuine appeal, but his voice falters and cannot adequately carry the passion of “Maria” or the yearning of “Somewhere.” Yesenia Ayala captivates as Anita when she’s on stage and is a formidable dancer, deliberate and confident in her movement.

And then there is Amar Ramasar, who plays Bernardo, Maria’s brother and the leader of the Sharks. On the night I saw the show, still in previews, there were several protestors in front of the Broadway Theatre, with posters warning theatregoers about a sexual predator in the cast. I had no idea who they were protesting until the next day when I learned Ramasar was fired from the New York City Ballet for sharing nude pictures of a woman in the company without her consent. Though I was unaware, the show’s producers certainly knew of his history and clearly didn’t care. Only eighteen months passed between when Ramasar was fired from the ballet and when he began performing as Bernardo. The quality of his performance is irrelevant but if talent was a justifiable reason to overlook sexual misconduct, Ramasar’s presence in the show is wildly unjustified. It is all but impossible to respect a show that shows so little respect for itself or the women in its cast.

Overall, the experience of West Side Story is kind of unpleasant but all things considered, discomfort is appropriate. There is a generation of young people who must deal with a burning planet, unchecked gun violence that is somehow supposed to abate with the power of thoughts and prayer, unchecked police brutality, the erosion of privacy, the downfall of democracy, stagnant wages and limited job opportunities, staggering student loan debt, healthcare as a privilege instead of a right, rising rents and home ownership as an elusive fantasy. A show that tries to speak to this reality demands setting complacency and comfort aside.

There is a generation of young people who must deal with a burning planet, unchecked gun violence that is somehow supposed to abate with the power of thoughts and prayer

The new staging seems quite forward-looking and inclusive but most of the creative and production team is comprised of white people. Ivo van Hove, Belgian, directs and Anne Teresa DeKeersmaeker, Dutch, choreographs this new staging. They are accomplished and talented, certainly, and they do bring a sharp and interesting energy to this revival. But how committed can a show be to genuine inclusion when people of color have little or no hand in the show’s artistic voice and direction? How authentic can the portrayals of people of color be when it is predominantly white people shaping those portrayals?

The show’s attempts at inclusion are, at times, clumsily executed. The black Jets would have more solidarity with the Puerto Rican Sharks than the white Jets. That they don’t in this show is the misstep of people who did not bother to learn much about the cultures they tried to represent. During “Gee Officer Krupke,” there are, among others, images of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. It’s clear what they are trying to say but it is also cognitively dissonant because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and it is an island and the show is set in present day. To flatten the experience immigration without nuance makes it seem like the show’s architects think all brown people and their experiences are interchangeable.

In graduate school many years ago, we read a book in a pedagogy seminar about racial discrimination in higher education. One of my classmates said she took the book and its claims more seriously when she realized the author was white. I’ve never forgotten that. For a great many people, whiteness is synonymous with authority. Whiteness endows people with this presumed authority on any subject including the experiences of people of color.

It is interesting to consider the cultural missteps of West Side Story as the literary world remains embroiled in a debate about Jeanine Cummin’s American Dirt. In the novel, Lydia and her young son Luca must flee Mexico after members of the fictional Los Jardineros cartel murder their entire family as they celebrate a quinceanera. If there is a cliché about Mexico, Cummins finds a way to exhaust it. Lydia’s backstory is realized through flashbacks and the revelation of the catalyst for the massacre is so facile, so absurd. The pace is breathless, Lydia trying desperately to get her child to safety, and it is the one thing that works well. As a thriller demands, Lydia and Luca face obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. As relentless as the novel is, the ending falters because what, really, is there to say after our protagonists, flatly drawn, more caricature than character, experience every possible trauma.

At the end of the book is a very long, very self-serving author’s note — a way of pre-empting controversy but instead, it inflames. Cummins says she wanted to humanize the migrants who are trying to cross the United States border but who, exactly is she trying to do this for? Who cannot see other people with whom we are sharing this planet as human? Who cannot empathize with what we know of how treacherous the journey into the United States can be? Who cannot empathize with families being separated, children being kept in cages? If a poorly written and conceived novel is what it takes, are these people we really want to reach?

Cummins says she wanted to humanize the migrants who are trying to cross the United States border but who, exactly is she trying to do this for? Who cannot see other people with whom we are sharing this planet as human?

Cummins has repeatedly discussed the extensive research she conducted. In fairness, you do see evidence of research on the pages of American Dirt. In fact, the book screams, “Look at me! I have done my research,” which happens when a writer desperately wants you to know they really, truly, have put in the necessary work to credibly write their book. There is a difference, though, between conducting research and synthesizing the significance of what you have learned. Time and again, Cummins demonstrates her cultural ignorance that no amount of research can overcome. For one, Lydia and Luca are Mexican when most of the migrants trying to cross the border are Central American. Lydia is a bookshop owner who displays her young son at the front of her store where white tourists marvel at his knowledge of geography as if a mother would willingly treat her child like an animal in a zoo. There are so many avoidable missteps in American Dirt, places where the author is clearly intellectualizing experiences she knows nothing about or is incapable of truly understanding.

The author also tries, tenuously, to create connections between her life and the migrant experience. She talks about trauma and tragedy in her family. She talks about her Irish husband, an undocumented immigrant before their marriage, but she acts as if an undocumented white man who arrived by airplane is at all comparable to any undocumented person of color. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed about a traumatic experience in her family, Cummins wrote, “I am white.” In the months leading up to the publishing of American Dirt, she began to claim Puerto Rican identity by way of a grandmother, going so far as to include the word “Boricua” in her Twitter bio treating racial identity like a costume. It would have been better if Cummins had simply written the book she wanted to write and allowed the critical reception to unfold without her clumsy attempts to control it.

The publishing industry functions within an entire ecosystem of ignorance. In 2019, publisher Flatiron Books hosted a dinner in support of American Dirt. The centerpieces were small concrete walls wrapped in barbed wire, surrounded by candles and flowers. It was a thoughtless, callous display and no one, at least publicly, thought anything was wrong with aestheticizing trauma. An editor chose to buy this book, for an astonishing seven figures. Publicists worked to promote this book with great enthusiasm. If there were objections during the publication process, we will never know, and they probably went unheard because the people most likely to object had the least power or position to do so. I’m not sure what’s worse — that the team behind American Dirt did not anticipate the critical response or that they did, and simply didn’t care.

If there were objections during the publication process, we will never know, and they probably went unheard because the people most likely to object had the least power or position to do so.

Famous writers like Stephen King, Julia Alvarez, and Sandra Cisneros blurbed the book. The book will be translated into more than twenty languages. It was reviewed twice in the New York Times, and also received coverage in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, NPR, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Times. While some reviews were negative, several were rapturous. Shortly before the book’s publication, Oprah announced that American Dirt was the latest selection for her popular book club and since, the book has sold robustly. It has received the most powerful endorsement in the literary word, despite its failings. American Dirt was positioned to succeed and despite the so-called backlash, this book has done exactly that. That such a flawed book was anointed and elevated while books by writers of color are ignored, unpublished, or inadequately compensated or supported, is the bitterest of pills to swallow. Writer Myriam Gurba wrote a necessary and scathing review of American Dirt, calling out the author’s inadequacy to the task of writing about the perils of migration, the surfeit of clichés, the inept characterizations, the abject failure of the project. “Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice,” she concluded. Since her review was published, she has received harassment and threats for daring to take this book and author to task.

Creativity demands that anyone should be able to tell the kinds of stories they want, but how those stories are told matters and creative freedom does not grant critical immunity. Perfection isn’t the goal, but accuracy and authenticity are. When people tell stories beyond their subject position, all too often they do it poorly. The depictions are caricatures, rife with stereotypes, flat and distorted. The people whose communities are so poorly represented speak up but are rarely heard. Writers are allowed to make mistakes.Writers are allowed to write bad books. To critique American Dirt isn’t about jealousy or misogyny or censorship. It’s about demanding better.

Creativity demands that anyone should be able to tell the kinds of stories they want, but how those stories are told matters and creative freedom does not grant critical immunity.

We seem to have forgotten that books are supposed to be discussed and vigorously critiqued. Unfortunately, we have a diminished culture of literary criticism, one where most books are not substantively engaged with and where readers and writers expect either unequivocal praise or polite silence.

Both West Side Story and American Dirt were supposed to tell big and bold, new and innovative stories about black and brown people, but in their execution, they were fever dreams of white people. That is a very old story, indeed. Lest you think audiences are deterred, American Dirt debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at №1. West Side Story is running at 100% capacity and for the week ending on January 26th, it was the fourth highest grossing show on Broadway. Both the publishing and theatre communities have been wringing their hands for years about diversity and inclusion, and creating space for a multitude of voices. And still, they never make the real efforts to practice inclusivity rather than simply lamenting the need for it. They never put the sustained material support behind diversity and inclusion initiatives. They refuse to develop institutional fail-safes to ensure that the best possible work is being made. Given the success of both American Dirt and West Side Story, they clearly have little incentive to do so.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Roxane Gay

Written by

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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