From Teaneck, New Jersey, Shereen Pimentel is an Afro-Latina singer and actress. She plays Maria in West Side Story Broadway and has recently been awarded by Outer Critics Circle for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. The Power Thread had the pleasure to sit down with Shereen to discuss her life experiences, future aspirations, personal influences around her portrayal of Maria and the empowerment of being a woman of color on Broadway.
Tell me your background.
I was born in Manhattan and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. When I was three years old, my parents put me in dance classes and that was my first introduction in the arts. Growing up, I saw many ballet performances and then began to see musicals. The Lion King was one of the first musicals, and I found it fascinating because the cast is predominately people of color. After watching it, I was inspired and really wanted to be in the show. I eventually found an audition for The Lion King and I ended up getting a call back – that’s when my mom realized maybe singing was a path I could take. She found a singing teacher for me, and I ended up booking the show a year after my first audition.
What is different in this revival of West Side Story versus the previous revivals and the original film?
There is a lot that’s different. We’ve updated the show from taking place in the 1950s to modern day 2020, which gave us a lot to play with and a lot to interpret what life is like now versus in the fifties. West Side Story is a modern day Romeo and Juliet that takes place in New York where two modern street gangs, The Jets and Sharks, battle for control of their territory. The Jets are New York locals and The Sharks are Puerto Rican. For the cast in this revival, there are people of color who are a part of the Jets, and I am an Afro-Latina woman playing Maria, which is really interesting to explore. In the script, it never identifies what people need to look like; it identifies the Sharks as Hispanic people and the Jets as an anthology of America. We really wanted to explore what that meant right now in the world we’re living in today.
How has Maria been ‘modernized’ in this revival, and how does your cultural background influence your portrayal of Maria?
Maria has been modernized in the way of giving her a backbone and making her a very strong female character. There’s a misconception that Maria has this fragile, one-sided personality. I believe that she has so many facets to her. There are definitely similarities I have to this version of Maria in which this idea came out of Ivo van Hove’s direction and out of rehearsal. They handed this part to me to interpret and find what that meant for me. There’s a lot of this version of Maria that comes from who I am as a person and what I really wanted to portray for a Latin woman. I was fascinated by this idea of seeing a Latin woman fall in love and be soft, but also be incredibly strong and make her own decisions. Having all of those facets within her made me internalize and truly connect with this character. I really wanted to make my portrayal of Maria as authentic as I possibly could. My father is Puerto Rican – I wanted her to not feel like a white washed version of a Puerto Rican girl. I wanted to give her some sass and flair, but also give her a real heart and a very strong connection to family. I see that culture within my family and I wanted to bring that out.
What is it like to be portraying such a strong female character like Maria?
It’s really exciting. I get excited for young females that come and see the show. I hope they see themselves within Maria, and I think it’s important for women not to be silenced and important for them to speak up and use all of their strength. I want to show young girls that it’s okay to have a bigger personality than what is considered the norm.
How empowering is being a woman of color on Broadway?
It’s empowering. I feel like I’m a part of a legacy and a path that we’re trying to pave for a future, especially right now. There’s movements/protests going on and people are discussing the changes that they would like to see in society and in every single industry. I feel like I am in a very unique position of being a young woman of color on Broadway trying to bring that perspective to the conversation. It’s empowering, but I also do feel like I have a responsibility to those people to open up more doors and make more opportunities out there for them and for myself just to keep moving forward.
What message would you want the audience to grasp from WSS?
I really would like them to grasp that this show was written in the fifties but all of the themes that they’re seeing onstage are still heavily prevalent now. It shows there are still things we need to address and talk about. We can’t look at it as something that happened in the past and just enjoy the music and love story – we have to actually look at it as something that you could see on the street now. A lot of the problems that are written into West Side Story are still there and still need to be addressed.
What’s your favorite memory with the West Side Story cast?
Opening night was electrifying and having so many Broadway debuts happening that night was insane. For many of us, it was our first opening night in a Broadway show and first opening night party. It was a time to look back and talk about what we created and what we went through to get to a product that we can be proud of and love what we do every night. It was really exciting. Being able to go through that with everybody was a night I will never forget.
What challenges did you overcome to get to where you are? What are the biggest lessons you have learned?
I would say being the only person in my family who was involved in the arts was a learning process for all of us. My parents are really supportive and I am thankful for that. The challenges I dealt with were people outside of my family who would ask me “What’s your Plan B” and going through learning experiences and having people reject, shoot me down or not have kind words to say as I’m learning how to become an actress or singer. The biggest lesson I learned was that you can evolve as an artist over time and I’m still doing that now. I have always been focused on singing, and acting is something that I always wanted to do and really had to work hard on honing that craft. As I grew up, I did get a lot of negativity trying to learn, and I think the biggest lesson from that is I could continue learning – it wasn’t going to be perfect when I was younger and it doesn’t have to be perfect now. All I need to do is keep going because I will evolve as an artist and I will evolve as a person. I’m going to continue to evolve and my art will move with me in that.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Since I have a lot of free time now, I really like to knit, bake, make jam, and I’ve been learning how to play the piano! I also got a new puppy that’s now two months old. I spend 90% of my time watching him and spending time with him!
What other future aspirations do you have for yourself?
So many things! I would love to continue musical theatre, and I want to move toward the TV/film realm and see what that’s like. Maybe even record an album! At the end of the day, I am interested in making art that makes people think and makes them feel things. I like walking out of the theatre and having people tell me their reactions. No matter what I’m doing or creating, I want it to be something that people can grab onto and really pick apart in some way.
What advice would you give young children that want to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
I think my biggest advice is to keep going. It’s really easy as a kid to see all these adults doing theatre, TV, film, and wanting to do that but thinking they’re not talented enough. But the time as a kid and going through different learning experiences is what helps you get to that point and ready to move into that realm. The biggest thing is to keep pushing forward.
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
Powerful is one of those big words that has so much meaning to it, but I think it has to do with self and self-empowerment. It starts in a place of really looking inside of yourself and feeling strong about yourself no matter in what way. Whether it’s your talent, singing ability, body, personality, any of those things starts with self-empowerment. When you feel confident within yourself, it’s expressed on the outside and a lot of people can see that and recognize that self confidence and sense of self worth.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
My biggest thing I want to share is how important it is for people in life to speak up and speak their truth. I’ve been thinking about that especially these past few weeks. Thinking about trying to find my own voice and see where that lies and what I want to talk about to people. I think it’s really important for everyone to try to at least find their voice. It’s not something that comes easily, but to be able to reflect on your life and what has happened is important no matter how old or young you are. Reflect on what you’ve been through, find your voice, and figure out what’s important to you.