In their leather jackets, scruffy blue jeans and sock-hop skirts, the young group on one side of the room were the epitome of ’50s bad boys and good girls.

Their counterparts sported slick shirts, flowy dresses and gold chains — more street style than anything else.

Together, the two groups embodied the iconic fashion and timeless drama of a classic story: “West Side Story.”

The Jets and Sharks rekindle their rivalry in the latest production by Greenwood-based Agape Theater Company. The troupe felt that now was the perfect time to tackle the electric show as well as its charged themes.

“We really wanted to focus a little bit more diversity and inclusion and equality and equity. It was necessary that we chose a show that not only showcased different cultures, but also sends a message that is still current and relevant today,” said April Barnes, co-director of the show.

“West Side Story” opens Friday at Lutheran High School on the southside of Indianapolis. The show will be held through Sunday, and again June 24 to 26.

For the cast, to work on such a well-known musical at a time when the ideas presented in the film are as important as ever has been a privilege.

“It’s been a roller coaster; it’s been intense,” said Rebekah Barajas, who portrays Maria in the musical. “This was unique, because it’s not done very often. This show is so hard to put together, just because of how emotional and how controversial of a topic it deals with.”

Agape Theater Company was founded as a theater ministry of Our Lady of Greenwood Catholic Church to provide more opportunities for young actors on the southside. Since that time, it has staged works ranging from “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Into the Woods Jr.” to “Macbeth” and “Newsies.”

Their production of “Les Misérables” won the Most Impressive Youth Theater Production of 2017 Award, while the production of “The Tempest” won the Most Impressive Youth Theater Production of 2019 Award

With its history of taking on weighty and sometimes difficult shows, company leaders were not intimidated by “West Side Story.” The musical transports audiences to New York in the 1950s, focusing on the tension between the Jets, a Caucasian gang, and their counterparts the Sharks, a gang of Puerto Ricans, in the inner city. The Shark performers are cast to reflect the diversity of the Puerto Rican community. The love between Tony, a member of the Jets, and Maria, a Puerto Rican whose family and friends are aligned with the Sharks, ignites the tension between the two groups.

The goal of the Agape’s approach is to raise awareness and build bridges through this breathtaking musical theater experience.

“It is so relevant, and it has brought so many new cast members to Agape. It’s really been refreshing and eye-opening,” Barnes said.

The cast is made up of a number of Johnson County and southside Indianapolis actors, with some participants coming from as far away as Martinsville, Avon, and Ball State University in Muncie.

To prepare, the entire cast watched the 2021 Steven Spielberg version of “West Side Story” to connect as a team. Then they’ve taken chunks of time during every Saturday rehearsal to talk about issues such as immigration, lack of resources and support.

Barnes, who has been teaching those sessions, wanted to emphasize that we’re all created out of love.

“It’s been challenging at times. Sometimes when you take baby-steps — and it is a baby step — there can be some slight push back. But overall, looking at where we are now, we have come a long way,” Barnes said.

The musical was actually cast at the end of 2021, and the entire team has been working on it for the past six months. Considering its difficulty and depth of emotions, the process has had its challenges, said Johnny Gaiffe, who portrays Tony in the musical.

“This is one of those shows that touches on a topic that is just so moving and important,” he said. “It’s still really necessary to talk about.”

Though the youth theater company has worked to make the show as family friendly as possible, “West Side Story” by its very nature addresses serious issues. Depictions throughout the musical include gang violence, a simulated gun shot and the attempted assault of a young woman. Agape staff cautions that it is intended for mature youth and adults.

“I’m really proud of this cast, because many of them have had to play roles that I don’t think they normally would play. They had to push themselves physically and mentally to play those roles,” Barnes said.


“West Side Story”

Who: Agape Theater Company

When: 7:30 p.m. June 17, 18, 24 and 25; 2:30 p.m. June 18 and 25; 3 p.m. June 19 and 26

Where: Lutheran High School, 5555 S. Arlington Ave., Indianapolis

Tickets: Adults, $10, children 11 and under, $5, VIP seats $15