Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Much Ado’ raises question of Latino stereotypes

December 19, 2011

Reversing a decision that had enraged Latino playwrights, directors and others, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has taken the unusual step of restoring in mid-run the original names of two characters that had been changed for its Cuban-set production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

As a result, the programs for the show will be altered as of Thursday to include the names Shakespeare had given to the two minor characters, Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal. For the first few weeks of the run, which began Nov. 25, the characters used names that had been made up by director Ethan McSweeny: Juan Huevos and Jose Frijoles. The names were considered demeaning and even derogatory by Latino theater artists, who wrote of their displeasure to artistic director Michael Kahn.

Kahn said in an interview on Friday that in consultation with McSweeny — who is traveling in Peru — using the Spanish words for “eggs” and “beans” as the characters’ names had been dropped. (Initially, one of the two characters had been listed on the troupe’s Web site as Juan Arroz, so that the names were “rice” and “beans.” “Huevos” was later substituted for “Arroz.”)

“There’s no need to offend anybody with that,” Kahn said. “I’m very conscious of what would be offensive. We sort of prided ourselves on not doing anything like that. This was obviously an inadvertent mistake and it certainly has raised my consciousness of what can be a slight.”

Some of those who had objected to the names praised Kahn and McSweeny for acknowledging the error and returning to Shakespearean names for the characters played by actors Phil Hosford and Carlos J. Gonzalez. “I’m really glad that reason has prevailed,” said Tlaloc Rivas, a Mexican American director based in St. Louis and one of several Latino artists who either wrote to Kahn or contributed to extensive online discussions. Among those upset with some of the production’s choices were other artists with deep ties to Washington’s theater community, including the directors Jose Carrasquillo and Michael John Garces and dramatist Karen Zacarias.

Carrasquillo, who recently directed Theater J’s well-received revival of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall,” told Kahn in a letter that names such as Frijoles “feel like leftover stereotypes,” and that if this “Much Ado” had been set in the antebellum South, “I know that Johnny Fried Chicken or Johnny Gumbo wouldn’t have made it to the stage.”

Conceptual transplants of Shakespeare’s plays have become so routine that “Macbeth” would have to be set in the Stone Age to surprise an audience with temporal or geographical tinkering. In the case of Shakespeare Theatre’s “Much Ado,” McSweeney shifted the eternal battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice to a sugar plantation in 1930s Cuba. He has explained in promotional material for the show and online videos that he was intrigued by a previous Cuba-inspired staging of “Much Ado” that he’d seen, and by the hierarchical nature of Cuban society at the time, with its emphases on status and machismo.

McSweeny’s “Much Ado” evokes the time and place in its sets, costumes and music, and, more awkwardly, in tweaks to the script. References to Havana, mantillas, the cha-cha and the well-known Cuban patriotic song “Guantanamera,” written in 1928, have been added. But the exceptions taken to the miscues in evoking Cuba specifically suggest that perhaps theaters should be more conversant with the richness and diversity of Latino culture when undertaking such a project.

Ana Serra, associate professor in American University’s language and foreign studies department and an expert on modern Cuba, noted, for example, that the muted costumes for the women were far too demure. “Don’t give me dresses with pastel colors — give me bright colors! Give me decolletage!” she said, adding that although she enjoyed the show, some elements did not add up. “For me,” she declared, “it was shocking that it was set on a Cuban plantation and there was only one character who was non-white.”

The casting of only a few Latino actors was a contentious point for others taking issue with the production. Kahn said that the company put out a call for Latinos but that few of those contacted came in. “We saw everybody the agent submitted, and we were turned down,” he said.

How theaters fill roles that either call for or suggest the casting of Latinos has become inflamed of late, with the criticism by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis of a Hartford theater company’s casting of two lead Latino parts in his play, “The [Expletive] With the Hat.” Incensed that the parts were pre-cast with white actors, Guirgis went on Facebook to denounce the decision, saying categorically that he’d written those characters as Puerto Rican, to be played by Latinos.

In the case of “Much Ado,” complaints have been loudest about the production’s choice to rename two minor characters in the retinue of the comedy’s resident buffoon, Dogberry, played by Ted van Griethuysen. Some Latino artists say that theaters think their audiences won’t object. “When deciding to change a name for a play or cast a play, it seems that artistic directors, casting directors, and directors feel it is okay to use stereotypes because well, who is going to care: not our Anglo audiences, for sure,” wrote Carlos Manuel, theater program director at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s questions.

Rivas, however, said what bothered him most was imagining the effect on Latino playgoers. “I was very concerned about their student matinees, and children going to this, and associating those names with fellow members of their community,” he said. “That’s what prompted me to say, ‘This is worth writing a letter to Michael.’ ”

Kahn says the intent of the renaming was to find funny parallels in Spanish to “Oatcake,” but he sees that it backfired. “I used to get letters from people about why we would have black and white actors playing members of the same family. Sometimes I wouldn’t even answer them because I thought it was their problem,” he said. “This I think is our problem, and it will never happen again.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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