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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

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