On Tuesday, February 12, invited guests gathered at Phoenix House’s Brooklyn treatment center for a special West Side Story Project (WSSP) community event that demonstrated the power of theater to promote positive relationships.
Held at the Phoenix House Career Academy, a residential substance abuse rehabilitation and vocational facility located in DUMBO, the event highlighted the talents of Phoenix House clients and dedication of the New York City Police Department (NYPD). Under the guidance of teaching artist Tom Demenkoff, clients and officers have been participating together in bi-weekly workshops during which the content and themes of West Side Story are used to generate meaningful dialogue. All of the issues the musical tackles – race, immigration, gang involvement – are fair game.
The goal of the event was to increase the positive impact of the WSSP by engaging the broader community in the conversation; the outcome exceeded our expectations.
History of the West Side Story Project at Phoenix House
The WSSP was designed by Anna Laszlo to give law enforcement agencies the opportunity to foster positive relationships with at-risk youth using a West Side Story based curriculum. In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office awarded Phoenix House a two-year grant to implement the WSSP across the country.
In addition to the Career Academy, WSSP workshops are currently being conducted at the following Phoenix House locations that serve youth dealing with the consequences of drug and alcohol addiction: Phoenix House Academies in Orange County and Los Angeles; the Hill A. Feinberg Academy in Dallas; and our Boys Recovery Lodge and Girls Recovery Lodge in Arlington.
We have witnessed the ability of the WSSP to change attitudes and perceptions at all of these sites, and the project’s power was evident during our community event in Brooklyn.
The Opportunity to Write a Different Ending
It is no secret that West Side Story (based on William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet) ends tragically, with Maria’s true love Tony shot dead by her would-be suitor, Chino. But what if Chino had made a different choice that night? What if a police officer had intervened?
These are the issues Phoenix House residents tackle in their insightfully written scene “La Historia de Chino,” which they and NYPD officers performed February 12 for guests that included Judge Joseph E. Gubbay of the Kings County Supreme Court, Captain Maximo Tolentino and other distinguished officers from the NYPD’s 84th Precinct, Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, members of the New York City Department of Education, and other valued community partners. Residents’ family members were also present to offer their support.
An especially emotional part of the evening was when attendees in recovery shared the experiences they had with police when they were on “the wrong side of the law,” and discussed the role of law enforcement in leading them to treatment.
Also discussed were unfair public perceptions of the police, profiling, how lack of good communication can escalate situations between youth and police, and how too often the only time community members and the police officers assigned to protect them interact is when there’s a problem – they never get a chance to just be people together.
In recognition of how the WSSP can help with these issues, special guest Tom Oppenheim, Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, commented, “This is the answer to all our problems, if we can get enough people to participate – communication at the deepest, most personal level.”
For more information about the WSSP, please contact Amy Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org.