A Responsibility for Discussion

In the midst of all the great reviews that our current production of Much Ado About Nothing has been receiving there has been a note of discord. Beyond the reviewers we have heard from some members of our community (both near and far) who have acknowledged a discomfort with some aspects of the concept in moving the setting of the play from Sicily to Cuba, resulting in what may be construed as the production being culturally insensitive.

As the Audience Enrichment Manager, one of my main roles at STC is to engage audiences in conversation, particularly when art brings controversy. Theatre has an impact, and as a theatre company certainly part of the art we present on stage affects the audience in a variety of ways which also brings the responsibility to talk about these issues rather than let them fester.

Part of this engagement occurs naturally in our Creative Conversations – a series of pre- and post-show discussions that cover our productions from a multitude of directions. One of those programs, the AsidesLIVE Symposium took place this past Sunday and eight experts were joined by eager theatregoers in conversation.  One of the discussions specifically and intentionally focused on the setting of the play, but all of the discussions touched on it to some degree.

In the first conversation on gender, George Washington University professor Holly Dugan commented that Shakespeare “borrows from the worst culture stereotypes of his time.” That comment struck me in light of some of the outside conversations expressing these concerns. Many of the issues that have been brought up are about the potential of stereotypes within the production, more specifically, by renaming Hugh Oatcake and George Seacole: Juan Arroz and Jose Frijoles. Holly’s comment made me wonder: is there ever room for stereotypes within theatre?

The names that Shakespeare chose were a joke about regional rustics within England, utilizing puns on regional food and industry from their place of origin. It was perhaps meant as a stereotype on those communities, but it is also meant to be telling about the characters and their background. Relevant to the new setting, the hope was to find a similar joke that could reflect Cuban society in the 1930s. The joke may not have entirely succeeded, even if the impulse wasn’t to disparage Latin Americans it still unintentionally invoked racial stereotypes. Those stereotypes can make Latino audience members feel like outsiders and connect to possible existing prejudices within a minority of audience members.

At the symposium, Ana Serra, author of The New Man in Cuba: Culture and Identity in the Revolution and American University professor, commented that her discomfort with the production (which she otherwise highly enjoyed) was that it did not take the Cuban setting far enough. One example she described was the desire to see the class system broken down by racial lines. It didn’t make sense to her that Don Pedro, the prince, was played by an African American, while many of the serving class were white. “On a plantation,” she said, “you expect to see the division of race.” If in our casting, we had chosen to make those choices, I wonder, would we have been admired for creating a world that historically reflected sugar plantations in Cuba or would we have been criticized for racial stereotyping?

This brings me back to my other question: Is there room for stereotypes in theatre? If we are using them to make an artistic point does that change the answer? If they are used to explore a question does that? Not just in connection to Much Ado but, I wonder, when dealing with Shakespeare whose work is rife with stereotypes what is the artists’ responsibility? If there are references that no longer resonate to our audiences, like Oatcake and Seacole; by taking them out do we lose part of Shakespeare’s intention? Or do we have an additional responsibility in our contemporary world to be better than Shakespeare and throw stereotypes aside so as not to be culturally insensitive to today’s audiences?

These are all questions that frankly I don’t know the answers to, but I do know that it’s a conversation that artists and audiences should be having and certainly has led to many conversations both internally and within our events like our recent symposium. These questions may not all be answered or we may not agree on what the answers are, but undoubtedly there is a responsibility to learn from these issues and question how all audiences, from all cultures, will respond.

Certainly at our next Creative Conversations: Classics in Context this Saturday, these conversations will continue, and if you are interested in hearing excerpts from the AsidesLIVE discussion,  a podcast will be made available in the next week.

By Hannah J. Hessel
Audience Enrichment Manager


  1. TO: Hannah Hessel, Audience Enrichment Manager
    RE: A Responsibility for Discussion

    Working with the Elizabethan canon is one of the greatest pleasures of any theatre artist working in theatre today. In Shakespeare’s case, directors can transpose, adapt or conceptualize the work to any number of historical or contemporary situations/settings and illuminate the text in new and interesting ways. The tenure of Michel Kahn at STC has ushered an unprecedented number of clever and profound interpretations over the years.
    STC productions have deepened our understanding of the work. And for that our region is the better.

    Regarding the present production of Much Ado… the construed “cultural insensitivity” that you refer to on this particular production is clearly rooted in a lack of Latino cultural awareness in the part of the organization. That is where a true discussion of responsibility should begin.

    The dramaturgical reasons behind the impulse to change the names of the two characters in question are clearly understood. What is not yet understood is how re-naming the characters Jose Arroz (now Jose Huevos?) and Juan Frijoles was not stopped from the get go. Now, I personally know that no one at STC intended any harm or hurt. This is why I’m placing this one under the cultural unawareness column. This is also why your dialogue is SO important.

    As to the larger question you pose: “is there room for stereotypes in theatre?” I gladly yield to others to debate. But there is a big difference between stereotype characters and re-naming a stereotype character with a derogatory term.

    Look very much forward to the podcast.

    Jose Carrasquillo

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  4. Why didn’t anyone question the inappropriate use of the names early in the process? The names were only removed after the controversy. The names are in bad taste and it is disappointing that no one had the courage to speak up way before this fiasco played out.

  5. I am a little concerned that the removal of the names may set precedent for censorship in the theater. It seems to me that this may open the door for any play (regardless of whom it was authored and when) to become censored because people are uncomfortable or offended that it made a joke at anyone’s expense. Didn’t Shakespeare himself make jokes in his plays about other cultures? It seems to me he did. Where does the line get drawn?
    1. I don’t understand why the names are offensive to begin with, which is not me being attempting to be insensitive to anyone, I just simply do not understand.
    2. If it were a Latino director with a Latino cast and they did the same thing, would it have been less offensive?
    3. Would it have been less offensive if the director kept the original names and made them epitome of ignorance rednecks? Would anyone have complained about that?
    4. I would be interested in knowing how many people who auditioned were of Spanish speaking descent, and if the people who were cast were cast because the director felt that they were acting to the best of their capabilities and would best represent his vision.

    Again, I am not trying to spark outrage, I just simply want to understand the situation.

  6. Thank you Jose, Roberto and Caroline for your comments and the questions that they bring up.

    In response to the question about casting, we did have a large number of Latino actors audition. The current cast is diverse and includes a couple of actors of Cuban decent.

    As you now know, we have changed the names back to the originals. We do not consider that change censorship. It was an easy change to make and does not have an impact on the success of the production.

  7. As a Spanish sur-named individual, I can be the first one to tell you when “Latinos” or “Hispanics” (or whatever the current politically correct mandated name for us is) are being stereotyped or discriminated against.This was not one of those moments.

    I can’t believe The Shakespeare Company caved in to the demands of a politically correct bully! This incident is a text book example of how censorship and cultural Marxism have gone astray, permeating every facet of American society to the point where we have become like mutes that can’t say or do anything human or humorous lest we be labeled racist.

    Professor Rivas really needs to get a sense of humor and stop being so sensitive, and quite frankly, boring. Not everything in the Latino world revolves around discrimination, revolution, raised fists in the air, or serious social commentary. The play takes place in 1930s Cuba for God’s sake, and it has nothing to do with insulting overly sensitive Chicanos in a theatrical interpretation that is about Cubans, and not Chicanos! Cubans, like all Latin Americans love comedy, farce, and making lighthearted or savage fun at the world – this play would’ve been a perfect vehicle for this, but instead it was censored.

    Doesn’t Professor Rivas know that Juan Frijoles and Juan Huevos are a silly take on the original English characters, Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal? And now, instead of having Latino sounding characters in a play that takes place in 1930s Cuba, you find their names have been Anglicized while still remaining in Cuba. How dumb is that? The whole essence and soul of the play is ruined because of this.

    I can see if there was a play that insulted Chicanos, for example, like a hypothetical remake of Julius Caesar, where the individuals that assassinate Caesar happened to be – Chicano gang bangers from East L.A., then I’ll agree with the issues of stereotyping and discrimination – but this wasn’t anything like that.

    It’s unfortunate because this was supposed to be a fun lighthearted play with a Latin twist, a different interpretation of Shakespeare, but due to the tyranny of a self righteous vocal minority (and their hissy fit) the comedy, and in a way, our freedoms where in the end – abused. People don’t usually realize, it is the minority that has always held the masses in servitude.

  8. The thing about racism, stereotypes, and cultural insensitivity is that sometimes we [collective societal “we”] want the offense to be blatant in order to call it out. When it is more subtle, when it is easy to overlook [or look the other way on] it does not mean that the act does not inflict damage on our entire society. I commend STC for being willing to reflect on their name choices, to see the issue from another perspective and point of view and to see how the names are insensitive.

    And if you are wondering why I myself think these names are culturally insensitive let me give you something to consider, this was a meme that many theatre artists online were circulating as part of a conversation on how these names cross the line. “If I were to set Much Ado in 1920s Harlem, with a mostly White cast, and rename two of the characters Johnny Watermelon and Joey Collards, would that be racist?”

    In my mind that rhetorical question above is easy to answer. Those names are most definitely insensitive and hinge on racist undertones. Reducing people to a cultural food is not something that is new. And for me the jump from “Frijoles” to “Beaner” is a short one.

    And Professor Rivas is not alone in speaking out about these name changes. There are scores of Latino theatre artists who stand with him in his statements and sentiments: actors, playwrights, directors and other artists–and not just Latino, but of all cultures and backgrounds.

    And there are scores of theatre artists and professionals who are appreciative that STC is willing to engage in this dialogue to explore the matter further, that STC views itself as part of a community that it will respond to. Because it is through this type of dialogue (and when institutions and individuals are willing to re-examine their work, especially work that is intersecting with a cultural experience outside their own) that we can cultivate cultural awareness which enriches the theatrical experience (and our own lives) for everyone.

  9. Thank you, Hannah, for creating this forum. For anyone who would like to join in this discussion, it is important to keep and open mind. Honest outrage is great, especially if tempered by a willingness to consider the long view.

    Given Michael and Ethan’s long track records as interesting and complex artists, it is important at this point in time to specifically address the production and be willing to have a more nuanced conversation based on that (or not, depending on the conversation).

    I thought initially that STC may be doing the useful and necessary artistic act of comic subversion of expectations in the piece, or perhaps being willfully and outrageously offensive, also in the great tradition of art makers. I certainly would not as an artist give up either of those prerogatives – and I will continue to expect to catch a lot of heat for it from all sides.

    But, in this case, it was not so. And I need to remind everyone that its not ONLY about the derogatory names. A more troubling issue, as I saw it, is that once again, Latino culture is being co-opted to be used as an exotic marketing tool, and those did co-opting did not have the respect nor the good sense to strive for authenticity – either through research, community outreach, or casting. Could the story and themes of MUCH ADO be heightened and clarified for modern audiences by setting it in Cuba? You bet. But was that the producer/director’s goal? I don’t think so. Once again, the “exoticism” of our culture was the draw. Mr. McSweeny’s reference to the “machismo” of the culture as important to his concept revealed a lack of true understanding.

    I’ll just say one more thing and I’ll leave it to others chime in: this wasn’t about being “PC”. The use of ‘political correctness’ – a phrase with so much baggage and weight that it’s totally unusable in any meaningful way – usually tells you a lot more about the user than who or what it’s being used to describe; the use of the phrase evokes what “Godwin’s Law” is all about ie. you’ve lost whatever debate was in progress when it is evoked. Let’s refrain from the use of it, shall we?

  10. Placing any play (in this case the Bard) on any setting is a problem when the those producing the show disregard the culture and only use ‘certain aspects’ to entertain an audience.

    I can’t speak for the MUCH ADO production but I can speak for the use of names. Juan Frijoles and Juan Huevos as characters are not “racist” but their application is.

    I have been reading a lot of comments here and on other posts about how we, Latino artist/people/faculty are very sensitive (or boring) and that we need to get a sense of humor.

    We have a sense of humor, but the difference between being funny and having fun at the expense of a culture are two different things.

    I’m all for placing a Shakespeare play in any Latino country, but the concept has to be whole, not just in part. Theatre is an art, and one that has to be used to inform others, but continue to glorify stereotypes is one thing that it shouldn’t do unless it was part of a specific concept and vision.

    The efforts of those who has spoken about the misused of such names have done something good by calling the attention of the producing team. I am happy they have paid attention and they have corrected something, that otherwise could only further the perpetuation of negative representations of Latinos.

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