Recent Shakespeare Production Promotes Latino Stereotypes

An open letter to the Shakespeare Theater Company, Washington D.C. from Tlaloc Rivas:

Michael Kahn
Artistic Director
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Washington DC, USA

Dear Mr. Kahn,

I hope this letter finds you well. My name is Tlaloc Rivas and I am a professional director currently based in St. Louis, MO. I’m originally from Baja California, Mexico, and I was raised in California. I identify myself culturally as a Chicano (an American of Mexican descent).

My introduction is important because of the concerns that I and many Latino theater artists across the country share regarding your theater’s production of “Mucho Ado About Nothing.” Many of us fear that the concept and casting of Ethan McSweeney’s production as described in “Playbill” and other press venues, the comments he has made in the press and marketing for the show and, most importantly, the casting of Don John and renaming of two clown characters may express derogatory ethnic stereotypes of Latinos.

My colleagues and I are concerned that Mr. McSweeney’s concept uses the setting of a 1930’s sugar plantation in Cuba, which was (and is) a majority Latino region. Yet in his production, Latino performers seem to be drastically absent. The only major character apparently played by a Latino actor is Don John, the primary villain. Given the setting, using that dichotomy of Caucasian leads vs. Latino secondary roles reiterates American colonial exploitation of Cuba.

Also, based in the marketing, Mr. McSweeney’s production seems to play up the comedy using a romanticized view of Cuba as a tropical destination for cultural excess and entertainment.  It was this very exploitation that led to resentment of American influence which would eventually lead to the expulsion of those interests in the Cuban Revolution.  It is a history not to be taken lightly.

Most of the production’s press releases play up that this concept was used to make the show “hot and sexy”.  This is typical of a stereotype that emerged from Hollywood and continues to pervade the perception of Latinos today – of fiery temperament and outward sexual display.  I’m surprised that the director and your theatre thought this was appropriate.  The overall marketing strategy appears culturally insensitive and unlikely to draw Latino audiences to the theatre. I specifically refer to the “Cha-cha-cha down to the Shakespeare Theatre” video promotion.

Our strongest reaction is to the re-conception of two of the roles in the production, highlighted on your website. There are two characters in “Mucho Ado About Nothing” renamed, “Juan Arroz” and “Jose Frijoles.”  It is insulting to categorize Latinos with such derogatory names.  I am disappointed that Shakespeare Theatre Company has allowed this to take place. Many other Latino theater artists across the country are also shocked and offended by this choice.

As Peter Marks of the Washington Post remarks in his review of the show:

But even though two of the other characters in the retinue were originally given the indisputably English names of Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, did the director really have to rename them, cringingly, Juan Huevos (Phil Hosford) and Jose Frijoles (Carlos J. Gonzalez)? The joke is coarser than this “Much Ado” deserves, and the glib cultural referencing in general comes across as a little patronizing.

I would argue that is more than a just a “little patronizing.” As we come to the end of 2011, the Latino community saw a continued level of extreme vitriol targeted through political rhetoric, through discriminatory practices in hiring, the rise in hate crimes and harassment and five additional states enacting anti-immigrant statutes following Arizona’s ignominious example in 2010. For a national theater to take up this rhetoric through sloppy dramaturgy and for the sake of a joke is disappointment unworthy of the stature of such a revered company.

While I’m ready to believe that no one at the Shakespeare Theatre Company intended harm, the point I’m trying to make is that thoughtlessness frequently leads to troubling choices. If the smallest prop on the set has meaning, then isn’t it true that the message we send through casting and use of caricature in names matters even more? The honest truth is that ethnic enmity is inherent in our cultural fabric. It takes thought to rip it apart and re-weave our cultural fabric so that we are fair, representative, and honest about who we are…and who we want to be.

Since there is already an active conversation in progress online amongst a national community of theatre artists, many of whom (including me) will not get to see the production in person, on behalf of my colleagues I am writing to invite you to address these issues. I would rather see our conversation include you and provide an opportunity for you to dismantle any misunderstandings about what is actually going on at your theatre, than see the conversation spiral into overt antipathy based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

I want to help usher you into the conversation in progress, in the hope that we can build better mutual understanding and a stronger connection among U.S. theatre artists of all ethnicities. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.  I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Tlaloc Rivas, Stage Director, St. Louis, MO

[Photo By Shakespeare Theater Company]

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