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.” Continue reading