The dynamite dancer returns to the Lyric stage as Anita
This isn’t Amanda Castro’s first rodeo.
The New York-based dancer will be swapping her tap shoes for the heels of Anita for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of West Side Story for the second time. The June 2 opening of the show will mark her fifth time as Anita on stage.
“It’s an honor and a gift to step into the role of Anita every single time,” said Castro. “There’s so much history and legacy.”
Having been a performer for decades, West Side Story is just one of the many productions that Castro has under her belt. She has been performing and dancing since she was a young child in her kitchen, she said. Castro recalled dancing with her grandmother and her father, a Latin percussionist, as he played his instruments. She then attended a performing arts high school in New Haven and while most of her classmates picked colleges to attend, she knew her heart was set on dancing.
“I got offstage from a performance and I was hysterically crying,” said Castro. “I was like, I’m supposed to be doing this! This is what I’m supposed to be doing!”
Currently, Castro is mainly based in New York City and is a part of the dance trio Soles of Duende. Created by Arielle Rosales and Brinda Guha, Castro joined the group six years ago.
“We were looking for that right person,” wrote Guha. “I went to a show by Jared Grimes, “Run The Night,” and this bombshell of a performer came out in a bomber jacket, door knockers, [and] a large piece of wood, and proceeded to dance to Vivaldi at this commercial street dance competition. One Facebook message and a photo shoot later, Soles of Duende was complete. Amanda Castro joined us and the rest is history.”
Castro has practiced many styles of dance, but the one that she loves the most, and the style that she performs in Soles of Duende, is tap.
“Tap dance is my soul song,” said Castro. “It’s the thing that has connected me to my culture. It has connected me to the history of so many bridges of my cultural tree. It has allowed me to, musically and in person, have a conversation about politics, about culture, about where you stand in the world.”
As a veteran of playing Anita, Castro has gotten to know the role well. The character Anita is from Puerto Rico and works as a seamstress in New York City. Her boyfriend is the leader of the Sharks, a street gang of Puerto Ricans who rival the all-white Jets gang. Anita is confident and serves as the confidant of the main character Maria. One of the most compelling aspects of Anita, according to Castro, is her rage.
“[The song] A Boy Like That is a joy to do,” said Castro. “You really get to know who Anita is and you get to see her rage. I think, so often, as women we’re not allowed to have rage in public… I think it’s beautiful and inspiring to see that, yes, we’re allowed to have rage and we can show it, because everyone else gets to have rage and anger and sadness in a very loud way.”
Castro is boricua, which makes her playing Anita in West Side Story more meaningful. Chita Rivera originated the role in Broadway in 1957, making her only one of two Puerto Rican performers to be casted in the original Broadway run. Rita Moreno popularized the role in 1961, and Ariana DeBose stepped into Anita’s shoes in the 2021 film revival. Throughout Anita’s time on screen and stage, there is one thing that has remained the same: a Latina almost always plays her. The role of a Latina being played by a Latina might not seem extraordinary, but given the history behind the play, it is revolutionary.
There was a massive uptick in Puerto Rican migration to the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s, with over 700,000 Puerto Ricans having moved out of the island by 1955. Many migrated to Chicago, like Castro’s grandparents, or New York City, like the Sharks. According to composer Leonard Bernstein, “the Puerto Rican thing had just begun to explode.”
While in the mainland U.S., many Puerto Ricans faced unequal opportunities due to their background. The racism toward Puerto Ricans is deeply embedded into the fabric of West Side Story. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim hesitated to attach himself to the project because he, admittedly, had “never even met a Puerto Rican.” The brownface that all the Shark actors donned in the original movie, including Rita Moreno’s Anita, has been criticized for making latinidad a costume rather than an identity. Moreno, the only Puerto Rican in the film, nearly quit over lyrics describing Puerto Rico as “an island of tropical disease.” Even in the 21st century, discrimination against Puerto Ricans has not died out.
“People called me a mutt,” said Castro. “I was like, alright, if you’re gonna call me a mutt, I’m gonna train like one! I was so mad because I knew who I was. And I danced. I didn’t fight.”
As a result of the hatred that Puerto Ricans faced in the mainland United States, many found solace in the representation in West Side Story. The pride that Puerto Ricans have in their island has persisted so strongly that many still look up to West Side Story today.
“West Side Story was the little baby outlet for Latinos because one of us was in it,” Castro said. “When you know your people are in the audience here, when you hear your audience saluting you in Spanish… it’s something you can’t replicate.”
West Side Story opens June 2 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Header image by Bridget Killian