December 10, 2011
Issues of Authenticity: Thoughts on A Miscast Motherfucker, Much Ado’s Latino Window Dressing, and Writing Parts for Latino Actors Part Deux
This blog post is the second in a series. You can read the first one regarding the Motherfucker in the Hat casting brujaja here.
Much Ado About Something
Now, while most of the online chatter recently was focused on the Motherfucking casting snafu (and by the way there are three updates to that blog post—scroll to the bottom), there was a small group of us on Twitter who were focusing our disbelief and frustration at another production.
It started two weeks ago when director Tlaloc Rivas began tweeting about a production of Much Ado About Nothing set in a Cuban plantation. Because I was concentrating on other deadlines, this was all just in my peripheral view…until I saw this:
Hold the phone.
There’s a character in Much Ado with the name Jose Frijoles. What the what?!
This required further investigation. I went to the theatre’s website to look at the “Artists Involved” (that’s where you’ll find the names of the actors and the characters they play).
Guess what, there’s also a character named Juan Arroz.
Isn’t that awesome [sarcasm], there are two characters named Rice and Beans.
I immediately began a little bit of sleuthing, found a database of last names compiled from the US’s 2000 census and guess what else…Frijoles and Arroz (as I suspected) aren’t even Latino surnames.
I just wanted to check. I just wanted to verify what my gut was telling me: that those surnames that were given to those characters really aren’t surnames at all.
Why were they given these surnames? Well, the obvious answer is to allude to the culinary combination.
The word that popped into my mind was “flippant.” And before I tweeting out my thought, I decided to verify its meaning. Why? Because I know very well that words have power and it’s important to mean what you say and say what you mean. And I wanted to make sure the word meant what I thought it meant.
Adjective: Not showing a serious or respectful attitude
Synonyms: frivolous – light-minded
Yeah, that’s what I thought. And that’s the word I meant to use.
The choice to rename two characters Arroz and Frijoles in my mind is a flippant one. Or how ‘bout this: a gimmicky one.
If you can’t tell, these names are really rubbing me the wrong way.
A Little Background on Me and Names
You need to know a little something about me before we go any further which will illuminate why this name issue really got stuck in my craw.
Names are important to me. Growing up my name was mispronounced by teachers, friends, strangers, what have you. As a child it gave me a sort of complex, I openly admit that. I wanted an easier to pronounce name. It was the introvert in me responding to the fact that every time someone butchered my name I felt heat wash over my face, I felt like I was sticking out.
Fast-forward to my teen years when I began forging my cultural identity. It was then that I began writing out my entire name (Treviño is my middle name, but if you look on my plays you’ll see my entire name spelled out). And as someone who’s had her name mispronounced a lot, I always take care to try and learn to pronounce other people’s names correctly.
As a playwright I take a lot of consideration and care when naming my own characters. I do a search that’s part intuition, part “what does the name mean.” Quite often my characters’ names resonate with the larger themes of the play.
So you can imagine that when I come across characters named Arroz and Frijoles I am little irked. It feels like the play is going for the easy laugh, it feels like very little real thought was put into naming these characters, like it doesn’t really respect the culture it is supposedly trying to reach or celebrate with its Latino production.
Oh, but it’s a joke. Don’t you get it? They’re the clowns, so they have clownish names. (Rib jab, rib jab).
Well, guess what. I’m not laughing. And I’m not the only one.
How I Know I’m Not Overreacting
After the initial shock and ire began to dissipate, I began to wonder: am I overreacting?
I’m glad I questioned myself. I think it’s important to be able to answer that sort of question. It provides a very useful check and balance so that I could respond thoughtfully to the entire situation.
How did I check myself? Well, I turned to my peers. Many of Latino theater artists I know agree with me.
But those are your friends. Doesn’t it make sense that they’d agree with you on this point?
Good question. Yes, I had thought of that. But then a peer tweeted this:
I think we can all agree that if the scenario above had happened it would be very clear that the name change made by the theatre, while an attempt to update an old joke, is indeed hinged on racially loaded terms which are outright offensive.
But that’s not the same as what this particular production did.
Wait? Why is it different?
And that’s when it hit me. So often in the U.S. racism is defined in black and white terms, both metaphorically and literally (as between African Americans and Whites). However, when racism occurs involving other ethnic and cultural groups, it falls into a grey area where sometimes it is more subtle and harder to discern.
Why They Did It
Now, I think it’s important to understand Shakespeare Theatre Company’s reason for making the name change. It should be noted that I have been in touch with staff at STC and they shared information (and confirmed information) re the name change and the production.
As it’s been explained to me, the original Much Ado characters that correlate with Juan Arroz and Jose Frijoles are Hugh Oatcake and George Seacole. The names are puns on regional food (Oatcake) and regional industry (Seacoal is one of the earliest carbon fuels). So the audience (and this is important) in Shakespeare’s time from those regions (also important) would probably have made the recognition at seeing their (also important) people onstage and would have understood that the Bard was poking a bit at them since these characters are essentially clowns.
The new character names (Arroz and Frijoles) are only mentioned once in the text and the renaming of them to Arroz and Frijoles was an attempt to make Cuban correlatives for Oatcake and Seacoal.
Why These Name Changes Are A Massive Fail
Okay, let me explain so it is abundantly clear for anyone out there wondering what the whole brujaja (Yes, I’m misspelling it intentionally) is all about.
- Shakespeare was poking fun at the people in his audience, he was attempting to either get them to laugh at themselves or he was being intentionally derisive and making a jab at those in his audience.
- STC’s Much Ado production is poking fun at a culture that, and the odds are incredibly in my favor, is not the dominant culture of its staff or its audience. Ergo it is attempting to get its audience to laugh at another culture. The audience is not laughing at itself as it would have been during Shakespeare’s time, instead it is laughing at Cuban and Latino culture.
- While Shakespeare’s England wasn’t a completely homogenous country, it had regional distinctions, the country was not a nation of immigrants in the same way that the contemporary United States of America is and England does not have the same history of racial tensions, discrimination and oppression that our country has. Therefore jokes about race and culture exist in a very different context here in the U.S. And therefore the audience at STC will encounter those jokes in a very different way and internalize the message of this cultural caricature in a very different way than Shakespeare’s audience would have. How will STC’s audience encounter the cultural caricature joke? Of course I can’t say how each individual will experience the “joke,” but I can at least venture that the general message they are receiving is that it is okay to make fun of and laugh at this “other” culture. And I’m sorry, but that’s not okay.
- Arroz and Frijoles may not sound like outright racial terms, but Beaner sure does. And whether intentional or not that’s what those names evoke. And yes, most likely the people to make that connection will be Latino, so there you have it, STC. You’ve created a joke that will evoke a racial slur in the minds of some of your Latino patrons and in the minds of Latino theatre artists.
- While it may not have been intentional to make fun of Latino culture, to evoke a racial slur that has a long history in this country, it speaks to a larger problem with this production that no one at STC caught this, that there may not have been a system to check and balance a production that runs the risk of becoming the poster boy for cultural appropriation. Was it ignorance? Was it sheer laziness? Was there ever a moment taken to step back and ask questions like: Hey, are we being cultural insensitive? Considering our country’s history of racial relations, what does it mean to intersect Shakespeare and Cuban culture as we have?
I’ll come back to that last point later.
Sexy is the New Exotic
Once I learned about the Juan Arroz and Jose Frijoles names this Mucho Ado had my full attention. Then over the Twitter transom came a link to the PlayBill article on the production where the theatre explains their rationale for setting the play in Cuba.
STC’s new Much Ado About Nothing is set on a sugar cane plantation in hot and sultry 1930s Cuba. According to STC notes, “McSweeny was inspired by a previous production of Much Ado directed by his co-artistic director Vivienne Benesch at the Chautauqua Theater Company. He was so taken by the concept that he decided to further exploring the setting.”
McSweeny said in a statement, “I don’t think anyone would claim that Shakespeare’s Sicily and Cuba in the ’30s are identical, but if you scratch the surface the parallels ring true: including proximal low level civil conflicts, a society with a strong religious influence, a native sense of machismo, heat, and above all, sexiness. And then there’s that great Cuban music and dancing which we will utilize for its maximum celebratory impact.” [emphasis mine]
Where to begin?
You may be wondering what my issue is with the paragraphs above. Well, as a friend of mine mentioned in response to it, “sexy” is what they say now instead of “exotic,” because you know, “exotic” is just a little objectifying.
So Marketing Departments, please take note. When writing your press release about a Latino production (and that’s plays that have Latino characters at its center, Latino issues at the center of the plot or in this case Latino window dressing) I’d advise avoiding focusing on how “hot,” “sultry,” “macho,” or “sexy” the production is expected to be because if that’s all you emphasize then you’re basically evoking a one-dimensional caricature of Latinos that has a long history in entertainment and guess what…we’re more than our sexuality. In fact, like all people we’re multidimensional so please don’t fall into lazy tropes when trying to come up with advertising language.
But wait, Much Ado is a sexy play.
True, you could say that. But remember what I said about cultural context? Well, again here you have to keep in mind the long history in the entertainment industry of over sexualizing Latinos. So the continual references about how “hot-blooded” and “steamy” this play is evoking those stereotypes whether you like it or not.
But that’s unfair to put the burden of this responsibility on this one artistic organization.
I’m not. The fact is that this burden, this responsibility is on all of us as a society and we as artists need to be cognizant and sensitive to the context in which we create our art. After all, when you create a product and package it a culture outside your own, you should be asking questions (lots of questions) to determine if you are being culturally sensitive.
Latino Window Dressing
Aside from the very unfortunate name changes, aside from the marketing language that truly makes my blood boil (and not in a steamy kind of way), there is one last issue I take with this production of Much Ado: It is a fine example of Latino window dressing, and that’s not a compliment.
STC set Much Ado in Cuba. The theatre kept Shakespeare’s play, his words in tact save for the name changes mentioned above and for the location names. In other words, STC dressed up a classic play in a Latino costume. And to me, this sort of cultural window dressing is gimmicky at best and culturally insensitive (intentional or not) at worst.
Perhaps the best way to know what Latino window dressing is, is to know its antithesis. I would argue that an excellent example of how to take a classic play and incorporate another cultural perspective in a way that both is genuinely respectful of the cultural perspective and explores how that culture intersects with a classic play would be Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro.
Oedipus El Rey doesn’t merely set Oedipus in a Latino barrio, it doesn’t simply have Latinos playing the parts, in other words, it isn’t using the Latino culture or people as a way to “spice up” a classic story a.k.a. Latino window dressing. Rather it draws parallels between gang empires and Greek kingdoms, explores contemporary power struggles through an ancient lens and shows us how an ancient story about fate still resonates within our contemporary lives.
The difference is that window dressing is merely transposing, merely picking up your classic play and dressing it up in new cultural costume. While a more thoughtful approach would require that you actually adapt or rewrite the classic play so that it feels like an organic expression of the culture you are in dialogue with. And I think that’s the key to the difference.
But if you merely use the new cultural setting/culture to help you tell the classic play, then you’re merely using that culture, you are not engaging with it.
But there are parallels between Cuba and Much Ado’s original setting.
Yes, I’ve read STC’s website, but those parallels are all to Shakespeare’s play [read one directional]. However, I argue that the way it’s framed the culture and Cuban setting are primarily in service of the classic play—not on equal footing and not truly in dialogue with Shakespeare’s narrative. This is perhaps the heart of the entire issue: that the culture and setting, while well-researched, is nothing more than a well-designed prop, an adornment.
Back To Authenticity
What does it mean to authentically engage with another culture?
I believe that we all have the ability to engage with cultures outside our own experiences. It does require work on our part. Work that goes deeper than the cosmetic. It means encountering that culture on equal footing. It means questioning ourselves, creating checks and balances so that we don’t veer into culture caricature or parody.
I know, I know, it sounds like a lot of responsibility and work. Hell yes it is, but whoever said being human was going to be easy?
All Kinds of Updates
First, apologies for not responding to the thoughtful comments below. I published this blog post late last Saturday evening and immediately had to throw myself into other work (playwriting related and 9 to 5 related). Suffice to say I’ve been up to my eyeballs in all kinds of work and haven’t had much chance to enter into a proper dialogue with the comments.
However, there are some major updates that need to be included in this post.
First, check out the post over on Racialicious (a truly great site if you haven’t heard of them before–they explore the intersection of race and pop culture). Latoya Peterson attended a symposium hosted by Shakespeare Theatre Company to explore the decision to set the production in Cuba from an academic standpoint.
Second, Shakespeare Theatre Company has started a dialogue on their blog as a response to the online conversation (and probably off line conversation) that has been focused on their production, specifically the push back that has outlined how the production has made culturally insensitive choices.
Third, I just learned that the name changes the started all the brujaja are going to be changed back to Oatcake and Seacoal. That’s right, STC is changing the names back.
A friend and peer of mine called the decision “heartening,” and I agree. I think it is heartening that STC is willing to engage with the larger theatre community and Latino community about their production choices instead of just putting up a wall of silence. After all no one can force them to engage in dialogue, so I do think it’s encouraging that they want to have an open discussion.
And I think it’s heartening that STC has taken steps to address what so many people found cultural insensitive. I appreciate that, truly.
Lastly, it’s heartening because it gives me hope (and yes, I tend to be optimistic about theatre) that STC’s staff is interested in becoming more culturally aware/sensitive moving forward and they are open to listening to feedback.
So, take a moment to head over to STC’s blog and join the dialogue.