HOLLYWOOD — It was a real Westside story, the sort of thing that only happens in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, former gang members were invited to the American Film Institute in Hollywood for a screening of "West Side Story," Robert Wise's Oscar-winning update of "Romeo and Juliet."
What could have been going on in the minds of the AFI associates who planned this event? Who among us could imagine that recently reformed gangbangers would be interested in a 30-year-old musical in which the rival Sharks and Jets call each other Daddy-o and do ballet turns at the drop of a hat?
Admittedly, the kids \o7 hated \f7 the balcony scene. When Tony serenaded Maria on her fire escape, the audience, mostly students from Jordan High School in Watts, could barely contain themselves. They hooted. They hollered. They suggested that Maria "take it off."
But the rumble, that was something they understood. And they thought director Robert Wise, who was there to answer their questions, had got it just about right. Of course, today's gangs have automatic weapons, not switchblades and zip guns, but the emotions rang true, according to 18-year-old Mateo Rivera.
"There's always someone in the gang who is trying to stop the fight," Rivera said. "And there's always one who wants to keep it going." Yeah, his friend Alex agreed, "and there's always one who's dying."
The students are part of an unusual program at Jordan called Living Literature/Colors United. The Living Literature part of the program involves the performance of classic American plays by professional actors, who work with the students to develop their performance skills and help them create their own productions.
Colors United is a multicultural company of student actors who get academic credit for their participation in the group. Colors United would be much like any other high school acting group if it were not for the gang experience of many of the members. Although more than half the members are Latino, one waggish observer tagged them the "Watts Gotta Dance Crips."
As actor Phil Simms, who founded the group two years ago, is eager to tell you, the group has become a safe and congenial common ground for former members of rival gangs who had only hostility in common before. So far about 250 students have participated in the program, which is part acting company, part support group, part extended family, part counseling and referral service--with overtones of Utopian community and 12-step program.
Simms, a stocky, charismatic leader with a voice that sounds seriously abused, is shamelessly in love with his kids.
"Don't let anyone tell you (that) you can't," he exhorts. "You wouldn't be here if your mission was over. You are all angels on assignment."
Simms shares the group's executive duties with Kingston DuCoeur and Anne Marie Gillen. But it is Simms that the TV cameras love, as he machine guns the group's accomplishments and credits: There has been no major violence at Jordan involving Colors United members since the group started; many are college-bound, and the group is going to take its production, "Watts Side Story," into the California Youth Authority school system and to arts festivals around the world.
Simms is a coach, a guru, a role model, a father figure and a compulsive dispenser of hugs. Colors United member Oscar Sierra recalled that he didn't trust Simms at first. After all, Sierra points out, Simms is white. But the group has changed Sierra's life.
"It's a door with somebody, like, guiding you through. It's a door I never imagined going in," he said. Sierra, 18, was a member of the Watts Boys. He did things his mother still doesn't know about. ("There was always intense pressure to do criminal things.") And he was always looking over his shoulder, worried that he or his family would succumb to the violence that is a fact of gang life.
Sierra still sees his old friends, but now he is president of the student body at Jordan. He is going to college. He has a part-time job in the film industry, which he got through Mike Medavoy, the Tri-Star Pictures head who is a supporter of the project. Simms and others are helping him with legal problems. He won a Governor's Medal for the Arts. He's read Steinbeck.
Most important, he says, he can imagine a future for himself outside of Watts. And he's at ease, confident, the way people are who know they can walk onto a stage and bring an audience to its feet. "I'm not afraid to go up and have a normal conversation with Ph.D.s or governors."
Domingo Maldonado, 17, also is intent on riding the group to a better life. "I got three brothers in gangs right now," he said. "If I weren't in this group, I think I would have followed in their footsteps and be right where they are, which is nowhere." Because of his involvement with Colors United, Maldonado, who wants to be an actor, recently met one of his idols, Edward James Olmos.