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Originally published March 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 29, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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"West Side Story" inspires Seattle anti-gang program

Fifty years ago, the Jets and the Sharks first fought their gang turf war on the streets of New York City with greased-back hair, switchblades...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fifty years ago, the Jets and the Sharks first fought their gang turf war on the streets of New York City with greased-back hair, switchblades and dance.

The legendary musical "West Side Story" not only provided a 20th-century twist on "Romeo and Juliet," it also offered a commentary on the senselessness of gang violence long before drive-by shootings and the proliferation of assault rifles.

Though the musical was first produced in 1957, Seattle police Detective Kim Bogucki said its message about gang violence still resonates with today's youth.

That's the idea behind the West Side Story Project, an effort by Seattle police, high-school students and the Seattle theater community to engage people in discussions about youth-violence prevention.

Using the musical as a catalyst, the program will include youth summits on gang violence, a workshop and a performance of the musical featuring a cast of Seattle high-school students.

"These were issues 50 years ago that are similar to issues now," Bogucki said. "It's not a problem we'll solve overnight, but we need to keep having the conversation."

Anna Laszlo, wife of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, said the idea to use "West Side Story" to ignite discussions about youth violence hit her last year while watching the 1961 film version of the musical. She told Kerlikowske and approached top officials at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where Laszlo, a criminal-justice consultant, is a board member. She said her husband and top administrators at the theater helped make her idea happen.

Students, police and staff at the 5th Avenue Theatre started working together on the project late last year. Events will include:

• On Friday and on April 17, nearly 30 students from Ballard, Chief Sealth, Garfield and Roosevelt high schools will lead two five-hour youth summits focusing on gang violence. Each youth summit will have three workshops set around scenes from the film.

• From April 25-28, Bogucki and several of the teenage participants and 5th Avenue Theatre cast members will present parts of the West Side Story Project at the Police Executive Research Forum national conference in Chicago. The forum is a national organization of police from the largest city, county and state law-enforcement agencies.

• On May 15, students from across the Puget Sound region will act out a modern-day performance of the musical, created with help from the 5th Avenue Theatre. The performance will be at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in the Central Area.

• On May 22, a workshop at Town Hall will feature members of the 5th Avenue cast performing "Officer Krupke," a song from the musical. Kerlikowske, a judge, a youth social-services expert and a child psychologist will speak about the juvenile-justice system.

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• The Seattle Police Foundation and other donors are helping pay for 200 students to attend the 5th Avenue Theatre's professional performance of "West Side Story," which runs May 26 through June 17.

Roxie Torres, 16, joined the West Side Story Project late last year, after prodding from her school basketball coach.

Torres believes that even though gangs are more "harsh" now, the teens who participate in the workshops and watch the modern-day play will think twice about committing crime.

"It's us teenagers that need to talk to our kind of people instead of adults," said Torres, a freshman at Chief Sealth. "Teenagers can be kind of stubborn. If we can get to one kid, we can get to a lot."

On Friday, about 140 high-school students from Seattle and Burien will crowd into the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center for three workshops set around scenes from the film version of "West Side Story."

A similar summit in April is expected to draw nearly 150 middle-school students.

The teens who attend the workshop will watch scenes from the film before talking about gang prevention, cultural diversity and youth interaction with police, Bogucki said. The final workshop will include Seattle police officers doing a role reversal with teenage participants.

Bogucki, who has been working closely with at-risk youth the past eight years, said this is the first time she's used theater to introduce crime issues to teenagers.

"I would love to do it every year if we could find a performance we could directly relate to things going on in kids' lives," Bogucki said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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