“Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow”

The 2013 Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet has recently been released to DVD and video on demand. I, of course, purchased it immediately upon this realization. It is my FAVORITE play after all, and this production stars my boos Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashaad. Friends, I didn’t love it. I wanted to to. Couldn’t.

My first issue is the pace. They go full throttle for two hours traffic. Perhaps I should be congratulatory here, but everything feels rushed, not urgent, not passionate, not high stakes, just clumsily hurried and therefore a bit overwhelming. Second is the cut. This is also linked to the pacing issue; with everything going whiplash fast and a very lean cut, I feel like I’m missing some pivotal opportunities for character and relationship development. It seems the goal is to be edgy, urban, grunge. Romeo rides in on a motor cycle, the major scenic element is a wall covered in spray paint tags, scaffolding for a balcony, and there oooo fire. But this push to make it swift and lean and for a younger audience is largely unsuccessful. 

I don’t know how director, David Leveaux, would speak of his concept, but race concious casting was certainly an element. The Montagues are a white family and the Capulets a black family. Not novel, not fresh, not revealing of anything but also not an obstruction. I worry that a choice like this is asking the text to say something it isn’t, but it isn’t heavy handed here, just circumstantial. Fine. A shame other ethnicities aren’t woven into this particular contemporary urban “Verona” community. But this I can get over. What I can’t so easily dismiss is the lack of chemistry. On all counts. 

Not only is there no chemistry between R&J, but there seems to be complete disconnects throughout the whole cast. Juliet and her nurse, nothing. Mercutio and the boys, nope. Even the easy, if not cliche, oft played Lady Cap & Tybalt affair was absent. So what’s the tragedy if nothing was ever at stake. If there is no love in any case then who cares. Maybe you’ve all felt this way all along, after all I’ve seen the meme



But it is a love story. A tragic “romance,” sure, but the love I’m interrogating is found in the make up and construct of all the surrogate relationships. The nurse, the friar, the fraternal bonds that all make up for lack of parental oversight. I know, I know, too academic, but my point is there is absolute love in the text. There was none in this production. There are some good performances (Bloom is serviceable in his delivery) and a few visually striking moments (remember, fire), but more than anything it makes me hungry for a really really good R&J. 

So I’ve now spent a few days down the wormhole of video on demand Shakespeare. I have to say to all the dissenting voices, pleading, “not another Romeo and Juliet.” Yes another. Please. I am still desperate for a R&J I can watch in my living room that has the excellent visual metaphors and accessibility of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, but with actors who can make absolute sense of the language and capture the joy and heartbreak and complexity and LOVE in these characters and relationships. 

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“Sweet are the uses of adversity”

I’ve been away a long time. Not from a place but from this blog. I’ve missed it. My absence was in large part due to bad press I got on a play I directed (not Shakespeare), and my strong reaction to/philosophy on the role of the critic. I believe in criticism. Thoughtful, well-informed, constructive, speaking to the quality of storytelling; its effectiveness, or lack-there-of; use of visual metaphors, design choices, performances, direction; the emotional and critical engagement of the audience. Criticism that challenges both artists and institutions. That calls out cultural biases, arcane practices, injustice, inequity, and the like. But more than anything I realized that I believe criticism is an act of advocacy, at least it should be. I’m not suggesting that a critic recommend you see a “bad” show, but that a theatre critic advocate for the art of live theatre. That the critic not do damage to the field by writing cruel and degrading things that don’t articulate a point of view on what was unsuccessful but are just mean or nasty rather.

So how can I continue my mission of being a critic of Shakespeare in production, and also remain an ambassador, advocate, and champion of that very work? So, that’s what’s kept me away this past year. Reflection; re-envisioning my role as someone who is deeply deeply passionate about Shakespeare performance but also willing to do the hard work of challenging my colleagues in field. I don’t want to be “bad press” for anyone, don’t want to be cruel or thoughtless. I believe in producing Shakespeare for the stage (and screen) and I intend to continue my advocacy. I also believe in representation and equity, and I intend to continue my advocacy.

My pledge is to be thoughtful in my criticism; to acknowledge that artists, artisans, and administrators worked hard to produce the best quality productions; to honor the work of my colleagues. I will, however, identify blind spots, deficits, and cultural incompetencies. In doing so, I will assume good intent on the part of the producers, but I will hold them accountable.

I will hold myself accountable. And I will get back to the task of offering you a point of view of the field from a person of color.

[As a side note, I’m writing this post from my very first ever Shakespeare Theatre Association conference, hosted this year by SF Shakes]

2015/01/img_1236.jpg Ben Crystal & Neil Freeman, Shakespeare text experts, meeting for the first time #STA15

“Our toil shall strive to mend”: Why Julian Fellowes fails as a Shakespearean

If you will journey back to when I started this blog, I’ll remind you I was motivated by comments about the racial/ethnic make up of Renaissance Italy on a message board about the newest R&J, you can reread that post here. That message board had me pretty fired up, and I was anxiously awaiting the release of this film so that I could revisit the the topic. Well let me just get it out the way free and easy, Verona was in fact pretty darn white. Beautiful actors, some giving great performances, but yeah, it was a general wash of white. That’s a problem and disappointment for me but here’s the ticker though, that is NOT my major gripe with the film.

So I have this mission with Shakespeare – artistic, pedagogical, and the like – to remove barriers to access. I am in love with the language, with the ginormous complexity of the plays, with their messiness and where they rest on dramaturgical faultlines, but I understand that for them to exist, excite, incite, they must be accessible. This can mean many things and manifests itself in a variety of approaches. Radical adaptation can take many forms from ballet to the animated feature film, Gnomeo and Juliet. But where do we draw the line at what IS Shakespeare versus what is BASED ON or INSPIRED BY the play of Shakespeare?

I think we’ve come to respect and expect that in many cases the plays must be cut/edited. We’ve accepted the elimination or conflation of roles. Many of us are excited to see how it’s going to be done and look forward to experiencing the “director’s take.” And even those of you that begrudge modern dress/interpretations/concepts of the texts easily forgive the use of stage lighting, multi-gendered casting, or some representational stage design. That’s to say there is no one way to do Shakepeare, and any rules are only proved by the exceptions. So I’ll admit there is a sliding scale of sorts when it comes to presenting these plays. For me, there is also a tipping point.

Lord Julian Fellowes, with his screenplay for the latest feature film release of Romeo and Juliet, tips the scale too far. This production is no exception but a direct violation of the code. He has rewritten the play in such away that newcomers may think they’re getting Shakespeare when they are not. It is a radical adaptation that is calling itself the original. It’s no Gnomeo and Juliet, Rome & Jewel or Private Romeo. It presents itself as the second coming of Zeffirelli, whose Romeo and Juliet was for the better part of the 20th century the gold standard of Shakespeare film adaptation. Directed by Carlo Carlei, dressed in Renaissance garb, and even filmed in Verona, Italy, this film sets out to pull off a grand bait and switch. And what’s worse is Fellowes’ elitist attitude that anyone with less than his Cambridge education won’t understand the play without his privileged translation. How insulting. This insults the Bard, you, and me, with my public school education and degree from a mere state college. R&J is my favorite play (so much so that as soon as I type the capital letter R and the ampersand, my device auto completes R&J for me), and I understand it just fine. Most 7th graders can read the play and walk away with the basic plot line. Fellowes’ translation, let’s call it what it is, is gratuitous AT BEST. Here’s the thing, theatre and film are ALREADY a translation of text. They convert the written word into something visual, aural, vibratory, possibly tactile. Film especially has the capacity for tremendous visual translation, and literalization of metaphor. Film as a story telling medium is full of “infinite variety,” and a thoughtful director and cinematographer should be able to outwit a pompous misguided screenwriter.

Let’s journey back to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. A film I hardly adore, with some choppy acting by its leads, but genius in its effectiveness of rendering the story completely accessible. While Luhrmann certainly delivers an abridgment, the language he retains is Shakespeare’s, and he frames it in such a way that the audience needs no idiomatic translation of the language. Luhrmann makes the text accessible by giving his audience multiple points of entry; by recontextualizing; by suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action.” Like this brilliant example of how he handles the descriptive sword violence in the play:

Mercutio's *dagger

Mercutio’s *dagger

Or

Tybalt's *rapier

Tybalt’s *rapier

This visual storytelling and Luhrmann’s opening sequence, give us all the clues we need to know that Tybalt is a badass, a duelist with an “immortal passado” and a fierce “punto reverso.” Luhrmann’s translation far more effectively renders a bloody handed “civil brawl” than Fellowes’ Cambridge inspired jousting tourney which tidies up the family feud into poor sportsmanship. Fellowes does the text and the viewer a HUGE disservice. He does not deliver “the most dangerous love story ever told,” because it is the stuff of legend, but because he has practiced a most dangerous dramaturgy.

An honest poster graphic. Imagine that.

An honest poster graphic. Imagine that.

Julian Fellowes and director Carlo Carlei have mislabeled their product, have attempted to deceive, and have perpetuated the ugly myth that Shakespeare only belongs to a privileged elite. All Shakespeareans should know the damage this does to our cause. Fellowes must be an Oxfordian because we know Bill didn’t go to Cambridge, hell he never even made it to Uni, yet these plays exist. Go figure.

The experts have summed up the academic argument expertly here. And for reviews of the film, visit here, and here.

 

 

“your actions are my dreams”: A biased post in praise of Oregon Shakespeare Festival @OSFashland

2013 was a transformative year for me. In many ways I came into my own: I found my voice, I followed my passions, I made new friends, and called a new place home for a spell. I found my tribe, my place, and I started to leave behind playing little. Shakespeare in so many ways was at the root of all this change.

I LOVE language. I recognize its power. Its malleability. It is political. It is potent. And when I say “that ish cray,” or “he’s totes adorbs,” it is not because I want to sound like a 13 year girl from the Central Valley, but because I understand that I own language. It is my possession, the words I speak locate me inside (and outside) of communities, conversations, and canons. There is conformity, defiance, and subversion in the manipulation and/or order of words. Shakespeare is my favorite of all wordsmiths (and yo, he was totes down with the elision, so I think he’d support my vernacular. Obvi). He is my favorite dramatist because his words bear the weight of action. Yes, absolutely gorgeous poetry, but poems that can stand, run, hell take flight. And so to my point, I spent the first 6 months of 2013 in residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a language based theatre where words bear the weight of action.

Now many people in the theatre world lovingly/jokingly/mockingly refer to OSF as the Disneyland of Theatre. A place where in 5 days you can see 9 plays in rep. For me it certainly was a wonderland, but not an exit through the gift shop here’s your “someone went to Ashland and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt” kind of touristy theatre of glitz and gimmicks. But a theatre land all my own, where people onstage looked like me. Where plays were directed by people that share my cultural values. Where the words diversity and inclusion bear the weight of action.

By no means is OSF perfect, (“tis a consummation devoutly to be wished”) but where other theatres talk the talk, OSF walks the thorny, uncomfortable, but all too necessary walk. So it’s no surprise that while at this language based, namesake theatre, I fell in love. I fell in love not just with the organization, but with the people who ARE the organization. People who think like me and share my values, but not always, yet even in disagreement they work toward understanding, compassion, and meaningful exchange. People who identified that “the inclusion of diverse people, ideas, cultures and traditions enriches both our insights into the work we present on stage and our relationships with each other,” and “are committed to diversity in all areas of our work and in our audiences.” I fell in love with the people who do the hard work everyday to achieve, maintain, and keep central that mission.

OSF does 4 Shakespeares a season, along side world premieres of new plays by living writers (both male AND female). They produce musicals and American classics. Last season Tennessee Williams ran in rep with August Wilson, and Tanya Saracho, and Lerner and Lowe. King Lear played opposite fresh of the presses The Liquid Plain, and a new musical, The Unfortunates, that defies genre. And they employed white actors, black actors, Latino/a actors, Asian actors, Armenian, Iranian, deaf, average sized, and differently-abled actors.

As a director who is female, a person of color, and overwhelming drawn to classic plays, I haven’t always felt invited to the American Theatre party. OSF not only invited me, but said “gurl you betta get yo ass in here.” Ok, no one literally said that to me, (I reckon you recognize hyperbole when you see it), but I found a place where it didn’t feel so strange to love Shakespeare (while black…). And so as I embark on 2014 away from my OSF family, I feel comfort in knowing that my tribe exists, that they will dive into the work for this season in a few days knowing my spirit is with them, that I can always call and visit home, and that the American Theatre has either offered me a standing invite by way of OSF or I can use my badge to crash the party.

“Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it…?”

So I posted a long while ago that I had much to say about some recent productions of Much Ado About Nothing, including Joss Whedon’s latest film adaptation, well the time has come for me to go on record. At the risk of sounding like a four year old, let me start with “I hated it.” Now perhaps I can “unpack my heart with words” and provide a bit more critical response.

Whedon, as far a concepts go, nestles us in an ultra-modern Hollywood Hills environ which actually works quite nicely for the text. The acting, however, is quite uneven with some of your fave Whedonverse players doing a hack job of the text. A delightful exception is Nathan Fillion who shines as a deadpan Dogberry. But lets get real, I’m not a run-of-the-mill film critic, I’m here to call out the film for its failings where people of color are concerned.

Whedon shoots the film in black and white and there is a striking absence of black. There are less than a handful of people of color in the film and less than a handful of shots in which they appear. So already I have beef. How in a contemporary LA setting is EVERYONE white? Where are your black friends Joss? Some of your neighbors must be black right? So in a film that is already ranking disgustingly low on the diversity and inclusion scale, do you know what our boy Joss does? No. Good. I’m here to tell you.

He keeps the line that reads “I’ll hold my mind if she were an Ethiope.” And before you go all “he didn’t write it, your lover boy Billy Shakes did,” let me say I know I know I know he didn’t write it. I know Shakespeare wrote the line that reflects a prejudice (read racist) attitude of his time. I’m not making Joss responsible for that. But you know what Joss did? He put that text on the shot below.

20131221-021330.jpg

“I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope.”

Did you peep the frame? So while Claudio, who has rashly cast Hero aside believing her to be unchaste, states (to make amends) that he will marry Leonato’s niece EVEN IF SHE WERE BLACK, cut to 1 of 3 black actors that appear in the film. While Whedon didn’t pen the line, he directed and edited a film that posits racist characters at the center. In Whedon’s film, people of color are merely local color, and in very infrequent splashes at that. Whedon creates this frame, not Shakespeare. Whedon says “close up on the Ethiope” and makes a metaphor (albeit prejudice) a literal insult to a woman standing to the character’s right. No Ethiope’s appeared on the Elizabethan stage, no black or tawny woman had to stand by as she was ridiculed for the color of her skin (or nation of origin). And as we know with film, you plan every shot in advance. Whedon penned a shot list. He consciously thought this would make for good story telling. So what is the story?

Let’s talk about how other productions have handled this moment in the text. The other widely known and popular film adaptation, also lacking in its diversity but owning Denzel Washington as one of its stars, is the 1993 version directed by Kenneth Branagh. In this film when Claudio is asked, “Are you yet determined / Today to marry with my brother’s daughter?,” Claudio and the Prince offer a nonverbal response and merely nod. This was 20 years ago, and Branagh had sense enough to cut the line.

In 2011 on London’s West End, David Tennant (America’s favorite Dr. Who) starred in a very contemporary British production alongside Catherine Tate and directed by Josie Rourke. While also disappointing in its lack of POC, Rourke at the very least cut that specific exchange between Leonato & Claudio altogether.

And how about London’s Globe Theatre, world renown for historic recreation/speculation of how the plays may have been performed at the time they were written, how did they handle this bit of hairy text? Well first let me say that in their 2011 production directed by Jeremy Herrin, black actors Joseph Marcell and Ony Uhiara played the father/daughter pair of Leonato and Hero, While other black actors played a number of supernumerary parts. At the number one Shakespeare theatre in world, when Leonato asks “Are you yet determined / Today to marry with my brother’s daughter?,” Claudio responds, “I hold my mind.”

As do I Mr. Whendon. I hold my mind that I hate your film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and its intentional racial bias.

Predominantly white Shakespeare: “that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die”

Okay, so this is where a couple tangent streams of thought are going to converge. I quit the internet for a while because I thought that my posts wouldn’t come to good. I was worried about sharing what I have been feeling because perhaps it would cost me work in my regional market; perhaps I would upset, offend, or make uncomfortable those in power and rather than rock the boat I should suffer in silence for the sake of career momentum.

Then a friend passed away, rulings of huge court cases that will have long lasting effects were announced, and this blog post, The Mythology of Color Blind/Conscience Casting went live on HowlRound. And I thought life is just too short and precious to hide, to be silent/silenced, and once again I was reminded that what I hate & envy most in others is audacity. So to my point…

I am not here for your lily white Shakespeare.

I know that there are black artist who feel the focus shouldn’t be on multicultural casting but on promoting plays and playwrights that have written roles for a cross section of talents and types. I respect this opinion. I am thankful for these colleagues who champion this work, who teach us who and where these playwrights are. I am friends with some of these contemporary writers and find deep personal connection to some of their plays, but here is what remains my truth, Shakespeare is my favorite playwright.

I have a long and complex history with Shakespeare, my love was hard won, “but I was won.” And considering that I endured a western public education, one in which a number of Eurocentric values were indoctrinated in me, it should come as no surprise to anyone that certain values stuck. Shakespeare is one of those values. So why now, as a theatre artist, do I feel excluded? I mean, sure I’ve been invited to the party, but like the others who’ve come stag, I’m dancing like a fool in the middle of the floor, alone. Feeling like my own brand of Caliban, “you taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you for learning me your language!”

I just don’t need to see one more all white Shakespeare. Not where I live, not in any major metropolitan area, not in London, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, or at the movies. Now I hear Ms. Stillwell (author of aforementioned HowlRound post), when she writes, “no theater season in America is complete without an adaptation of a Shakespeare play (pick one—it doesn’t matter) with an all white cast except for the one black girl who I like to call the ‘third black girl from the right.'” I call her that too. This is not what I am advocating, and in fact this brand of tokenism, “let’s get one in so we can say we are diverse,” is not sufficient or desirable. I’m talking about casting plays, ALL plays but in particular Shakespeare, in a way that reflects the world around us. I’m saying let the POC have some lines, maybe play a major role or two (scary I know). Coming from someone in a bio fam where brown & white coexist I can tell you that not all relatives look alike or are even the same race. And it’s not about the “all black/Asian/Latino” counter point, though, ain’t gonna lie, I’ll take it if it means seeing people who look like me doing work that I love.

Some of my colleagues will cite historical accuracy. Valid. Perhaps more valid with Tennessee Williams (though we should talk because my forthcoming production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, will be multicultural AND historically accurate – can you just imagine?). Since most of y’all aren’t doing Shakespeare historically (you’re casting women, you’re doing it in the 20’s, on the moon, in a barn, etc), I’m not sure the argument holds.

Also, Shakespeare gave a rats behind about historical accuracy himself, and I think we serve authorial intent to keep it relevant and topical for our audiences. So true, he wrote for a company of white men, but even then he wrote non-white, non-English characters because they (ahem) existed in his world. Shakespeare wrote globally and now we, who have all the resources and none of the censorship, can “accurately” represent the full human scope of these plays.

I’ve much more to say and already wrote more than intended, so here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to call this a series because I want to give a shout out to theatres with track records of successful multicultural productions, and I want to call out a few specific short comings from others. Next up in this series is a look at some recent Much Ados, starting with Joss (I was going to insert something snarky here but I’ll save it) Whedon’s.

Why Shakespeare?

I participated in a discussion recently that began with the question, “Why Shakespeare?” For me the answer is easy, Shakespeare captures a wide range of humanity in big, epic, messy, imperfect worlds where anything is possible. Complex emotions, motivations, desires are there along with fairies and ghosts, and fictive time can span decades or days or hours. And all of that in language that is unparalleled in the English speaking world. For me, that is why Shakespeare. Now is he the only writer worthy of production? Not by any means. Generations of playwrights have crafted worlds as rich, characters as moving, and stories that NEED to be told.

But I wanna wrestle with Shakespeare. I still want to own it. This 34 year old Black woman wants to stake claim to Henry 4 and gift to the 15 year old Black girl in me who felt access was restricted. Of course I will champion the work of my peers and collaborate with them to advance the art, but we share an ideology, we are already on the same page. What about the classrooms full of students of color, or low income students, or students who have no access to theatre or don’t find it very culturally significant? We aren’t shoving the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks or Marcus Gardley down their throats, but we are telling them that if they can’t read and understand Shakespeare then they aren’t meeting an intellectual standard, they won’t get into college, they are uncultured, they have diminished worth.

So I know I have some colleagues whose model of advocacy is to remove it, take away its cultural primacy and elevate other global works to the Shakespeare standard. I respect that model. I’m advocating something different. Empower students, like the 15 year old girl I once was, to OWN this language. Let them put the words in their own mouths. Let young adults play kings and queens and ghosts and fairies. Remind them that half of their favorite movies are based on Shakespeare plays and that Shakespeare, like their favorite hip-hop artist, sampled beats. STOP perpetuating the myth that Shakespeare is elite, that only “smart” people, or rich people, or white people can have a piece. And for goodness sakes let them get up from those lousy uncomfortable desks and “speak the speech.”

My love affair with Shakespeare didn’t begin when I was a child or teen. I hated the stuff. It was boring, I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t about me, and it certainly wasn’t meant for my enjoyment. And I was a theatre kid. Now I am obsessed with Shakespeare. He’s my guy, my go to, my calm, and I’m dedicating a career to those 37-38 plays. All because a teacher, one Tommy Gomez, said I could have it, make it my own, and play.

Tommy Gomez as Othello in The American Shakespeare Collective's 2012 production. I owe my love of Shakespeare to this man. Excellent Shakespeare teacher

Tommy Gomez as Othello in The American Shakespeare Collective’s 2012 production. I owe my love of Shakespeare to this man. Excellent Shakespeare teacher