Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Undercooked “Frijoles” Joke
For its current production of Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theatre Company transplanted the comedy to a Cuban sugar plantation circa 1930, and in so doing it renamed two of the play's bumbling bit characters. Instead of Shakespeare's Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, director Ethan McSweeny gave Washington audiences Juan Huevos and Jose Frijoles. Eggs and beans. Seriously.
Obviously that wasn't going to fly.
The Huffington Post reports that Huevos and Frijoles are now Oatcake and Seacoal once again, following complaints from, well, folks who apparently have at least a modicum of good taste. STC's artistic director, Michael Kahn, basically admitted that the artistic choice had no defensible grounding: "There was no harm intended by the production," he wrote to Tlaloc Rivas, a Mexican-American playwright who organized a letter-writing campaign against the staging. "I also want to assure you that your letter has increased the sensitivity of all of us...and in the future The Shakespeare Theatre Company will be very conscious of the concerns your letter raised."
The names have already been changed on Shakespeare Theatre Company's website. WaPo theater scribe Peter Marks (who criticized the character names in his Dec. 6 review) tweeted that the physical programs will reflect the change later this week.
Character names aren't the only thing the production bungled. As HuffPo reports, the play's marketing materials including the tag "Cha-cha-cha down to the Shakespeare Theatre." City Paper critic Rebecca J. Ritzel also took issue with the casting. "It seems worth noting, at the risk of sounding like a postcolonial killjoy, that there’s only one Hispanic actor in the cast, and that only the lower-class characters speak with Cuban accents," she wrote in her review. "Everyone else sounds fresh off the boat from Great Britain, speaking in clear, digestible pentameter."
STC's audience enrichment manager, Hannah J. Hessel, tried to turn the brouhaha into a teachable moment on the company's website, explaining the original impulse and posing a series of questions meant to inspire dialogue:
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.
The name switch didn't work for two reasons, I think: 1) It turned a very specific joke about class into a very broad joke about ethnicity; 2) it wasn't very smart or funny. Sure, Shakespeare penned plenty of ugly depictions. But rather than using a specific ugly depiction, Shakespeare Theatre Company attempted to transplant the spirit of that ugliness to another time and place, and failed.
Of course, Shakespeare makes modern audiences squeamish all the time. Most contemporary versions of The Merchant of Venice, for example, deal with the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock by finding a way to make the character more sympathetic. To the contrary, I admired Shakespeare Theatre Company's take on it last season: Instead of offering a more complex Shylock, that production made all the other characters just as despicable.
In her article, Hessel raises what I think is a separate, though related, point about casting:
At [a Shakespeare Theatre Company] 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?
Well, it depends. If the depictions are exaggerated without purpose—or ugly and illogical, as in the case of the names "Huevos" and "Frijoles"—then the company should be criticized. But there's nothing wrong in making casting decisions based on race, as long as you have thought-out, thematic reasons to do so. In moving the play to Cuba, McSweeny teased out its class-related themes. Since, as Serra pointed out, this particular class system had a racial element, colorblind (but largely white) casting mostly just muddles that theme.