Much Ado About Race, Class, Gender, and Cuba [Culturelicious]

Borachio and Margaret

On Sunday, I walked into the Shakespeare Theatre to join a bunch of academics in a three part discussion about the currently playing update of Much Ado About Nothing. I tweeted about the event that morning, and while we were in the green room, I received a link from Tony Adams of the Halcyon Theatre in Chicago pointing me towards an amazing analysis of race, stereotypes, and using culture as window dressing by Marisela Treviño Orta.

I read it eagerly, especially as it spoke to some of the questions I had viewing the play. But, there was a conundrum – I was called to specifically discuss modern gender portrayals in conversation with a gender scholar specializing in the Renaissance era. Added to that, most of what I know about Cuba I learned from Yoani Sanchez and The Lost City – which really amounts to a few glimpses and a bunch of knowledge gaps.

So we went ahead with the discussion as planned. For my part, I discussed with Holly Dugan how Claudio is essentially the crackerjack prize for Hero when compared to the other men in the play. We also framed the conversation around the death of intellectual equals in pop culture – how the banter and game of match wits that was so popular in classic films is remembered fondly but has mostly vanished. It didn’t seem as if the crowd was really into modern culture – a lot of folks came up to me afterward saying they had never seen Mad Men, much less anything else I brought up, so who knows that they actually got out of what I was saying. Makes me feel like it’s time to dust off that copy of Nobrow and do a serious write about the imagined boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. But I digress.

Towards the end of the segment, I decided to bring up Orta’s piece, noting that “setting a work on a plantation is a very loaded act,” added a couple of questions I had, and toss it to the next panel who dealt with the portrayal of Cuba and Cuban history directly.

But I couldn’t bring up all of Orta’s analysis right then, so some things (like the reason she wrote the piece in the first place) so it wasn’t addressed – some of the choices that pulled the play from homage to problematic. Orta explains:

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. […]

The choice to rename two characters Arroz and Frijoles in my mind is a flippant one. Or how ‘bout this: a gimmicky one. […]

[W]hen 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.

Orta then goes into a detailed explanation of why the naming was so off, particularly considering the dominant culture of the people attending the play and some conversation around the flippant naming in light of director Ethan Sweeny’s heavy reliance on the sexy, macho, and the exotic stereotypes to evoke certain reactions in the audience. But most damning, she writes, is “that the culture and setting, while well-researched, is nothing more than a well-designed prop, an adornment.”

It’s a provocative reading of this interpretation of the play, but not incorrect.

I punted to the next panel, hoping that folks with far greater knowledge of Cuba than I could pull together the threads – and that they did. From the program:

“Changing Times: Much Ado in Cuba” will explore the placement of Shakespeare’s play in the fertile ground of Cuba with Ana Serra, author of The New Man in Cuba: Culture and Identity in the Revolution (American University), Ricardo Ortiz, author of Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (Georgetown University) and director Eleanor Holdridge, whose all-female production of Much Ado recently ran at Taffety Punk Theatre Company (Catholic University).

Ana Serra begins, explaining that the Cuban setting was a provocative choice, but not unexpected. She notes that the play is a comedy, it’s supposed to be farcical, and “that tells me I’m not meant to take it to seriously – but as someone who has been studying Cuba a while, I am a little bothered by this interpretation.”

Serra contextualizes the choice of setting:

“This play has been set in a rural setting before, but to put it in a place as far removed from the city as a plantation is daring. To have a plantation, and to not play with color (as in skin), is shocking. I think the director missed an opportunity to play with the hierarchy of color in the play.” Making Don Pedro black, rather than the ladies in waiting – on a plantation, they would absolutely have to be black. That was suprising to me.”

“They could have even played with the setting even more – Cuba is remembered as the playground of the US in the those days. Or it could have been set in the post-special period of Cuba, after the fall of the soviet black, so the whole setting could have been different. He could have played with the social inequality – so Dogberry and Friges could have been the underlings, and the red bourgeoisie could have been called other things. But my guess is that by setting in in 1930s Cuba, the director isn’t trying to get into those political Cuban stereotypes from the 1950s and from contemporary Cuba, so he went to the 1930s to find another mythical Cuba.”

Serra also pointed out some moments that missed key cultural context that would have enriched the show:

“If we were playing with expectations [and color as social commentary], he would have made Beatrice mulatta. We have different names for the colors of people, which would be considered racist here.

In Cuba, the mulatta has an iconic role as breaking social boundaries, being very sexy, – I would have expected Beatrice to be a mulatta, to take the stereotype to the full extent.”

Serra is making a tricky, but crucial argument. She notes that a little more basic knowledge would have deeply enriched the play more and that a lot of the gaps are due to applying an American (and Renaissance) lens to Cuban society. Eleanor Holdridge, the director of the all-female version, interjected to say that colorblind casting would have made portraying a planation with a light skin/dark skin divide difficult. I think what she also meant to say was that the politics of theater (and the long history of racial segregation and the marginalization of actors of color) also plays a role in why that idea may have been nixed. But indeed, the results was mixed. There were no brown-skinned people in the play outside of Don Pedro and Borachio, which was an interesting choice, and it speaks to the tension between depicting color-conciousness in on stage and on screen.

Ricardo Ortiz, the other panelist, came out swinging as well. While both he and Serra stressed they loved the play, Ortiz notes:

“If you are going to set it in Cuba, you should commit to it fully or not do it at all. You could have done something pan-Carribbean – but once you set it in Cuba, all this other stuff comes up, especially the color issues. I wrote a book about Cuban American lit, and one of the things Cuban writers are fascinated by is Cuba before the revolution. But that kind of dropped out of this production. I think it could have done so much more with the setting.

Ortiz explains:

“I can’t help but to approach this play personally – my grandma was Cuban born in rural area in 1912, so she would be in her 20s during this time. I was raised by someone who had these exact values in terms of racial politics, gender politics, and values.”

It was one thing for me to watch the play as black and American. But it is another thing to hear about these issues from those intimately familiar with the subject, like Ortiz. He also brought up that the Eurocentric (and UScentric) view of the world also forgets a few things:

“The other thing I wanted to put on the table is the relationship of Shakespeare to Cuba. It’s one thing to discuss a North American play that is coming to Cuba. But Shakespeare is a writer that resonates all over Latin America, primarily through the Tempest. Anna in the Tropics – the Tempest is all over that play. So Cuba in a way has had a relationship with Shakespeare that’s important.”

Ortiz and Serra also pointed out how despite the colorblind casting, somehow race (and racist stereotyping, as Orta pointed out above) still snuck into parts of the interpretation. Ortiz notes:

“There isn’t a racialization of characters, but there is a colorization of sorts – some characters get a latino accent – and it’s Braccio and Margaret who were clearly directed to act more Latino than the other characters.”

In line with this was a broader conversation about the pan-Latinoization targeted at US audiences:

Serra, who went to see Puss in Boots, said:

You try not to be the critical scholar. I went to see Puss in Boots with my daughter and you have this music, and it’s salsa, meringue, flamenco, bolero…and Gypsy Kings. I was loving it, but my academic [side] was saying “this is such a pastiche!”

Ortiz expanded on those ideas, saying:

Puss in Boots has Hayek & Banderas – in a fantasy world, you can do anything you want, so why Latinize this world with a mishmash? The same thing with this production – it goes back to a pan-Latin depiction and it may speak to how this country deals with anxiety about its own Latinization.

Even Ugly Betty – the narrative is that Betty is from Mexico, but the actors aren’t; issues dealt with are immigration. They are supposed to be in the Bronx, but Betty’s sister is totally full on Nuyroican, and no one ever explains how this Nuyroican girl got into this family! And if you are blind to it, you just see a family of Latinos, and if you are conscious of these differences it is glaring.

Other interesting notes from Ortiz:

Those complications [in creating worlds that are based in reality] can take you in the direction that may ultimately become problematic – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

“Another thing about Cuban women – having been raised by a lot of them – society has always been deeply particiarchial, but Cuban women are not shrinking violets. There is a strength and intensity that circulates with femininity in the culture. There are far more Bernices that Heroes in Cuban culture.”

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  • Eva_Noel

    Thanks for this!  I saw this version of the show about a week and a half ago, and the Cuban setting put me on edge.  Before I saw it, I wasn’t sure if they were trying to make some sort of statement with that setting, and even after I saw it, I was still confused.  It’s not my area of history, and I appreciate all this reading for better context.  I was sorry I couldn’t make it to the discussions.

    I wondered throughout the play if Don Pedro was a man of color as a nod to the setting, or if it was just because everyone remembers Denzel Washington in the movie, and if that has okayed this role to be played by men of color.   I was also a little put off that the two men of color were either sexless (Don Pedro*) or hypersexualized (Borachio).

    *I think there’s room for more nuance than simply “sexless,” but he is a major, powerful character who is not married off at the end.  His main purpose is to bring other people together, not to have a romance of his own, despite his sincerely played (in this version, anyway) interest in Beatrice.

  • Steve Murgaski

    Your analysis does make me curious about the play.  Thanks.

    Re: your audience not knowing about Mad Men, I’ve never watched the show either.  Is it worth watching?

    Sitting in front of the television feels like going to church.  It force-feeds you the American dream, as dreamt by network executives and advertising agencies.  You become a commodity — the audience corporations are paying to brainwash.  I do really need a good reason to sell myself like that.