‘Much Ado’ over Cuban Revamp of a Shakespeare Play

By Nina Terrero (NBCLatino.com)

A Washington, D.C. production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” has recently changed the names of two lead characters – Juan Frijoles and Juan Huevos – due to a series of complaints about the the theatre company’s racially insensitive portrayal of cultural stereotypes.

The Shakespeare Company’s revamped version of the Shakesperean classic takes place on a plantation in 1930’s Havana Cuba and made its debut last month.  The refashioned comedic tale of two couples – Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio and Hero – drew critique from Latino theatre luminaries such as Tlacloc Rivas who demanded a renaming of the two characters.

According to the Huffington Post, Rivas, a Chicano theatre director and University of Washington-St. Louis faculty member based in St. Louis, M.O. mounted a formal email and letter campaign protesting the theatre’s use of cultural stereotypes to name the two characters. The campaign prompted the company to revert to the original Shakespearean names Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal for the duration of the play’s run.

“I’m hoping this sets a precedent of Latinos finally saying a collective ‘no’ to being continually being scapegoated, demeaned and stereotyped in this current political climate,” wrote Rivas in an email to the theatre obtained by The Huffington Post.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company has since addressed the naming issue in a public symposium as well as through a letter published on its website.

“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,” wrote Hannah Hessel, a manager at the theatre company. “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 play is under the direction of Ethan McSweeney, a D.C. native who was the first to graduate from Columbia University with an undergraduate in theatre arts and dramatic arts and has directed several productions with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. ”Much Ado About Nothing” will run at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through January 7th, 2012.

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Categories: NGLC Conference

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