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(Asian American) Romeo & (Latina) Juliet: Commentary on modern day urban racial conflict and struggle

I am one proud big sister tonight! I just watched the final show of La Teatro La Tea's production of Romeo & Juliet, starring my little brother (OK, he's not that little), Chester Poon as Romeo.  I've come to know La Teatro La Tea through my brother's work with them over the last 4 years.  It's a great community theater space on the Lower East side that supports the development of actors of color, especially Latino talent, but has also nurtured the growth of other actors of color like my brother, because they recognize that there are few spaces for them to develop, and even less room in the theater world for racially diverse casts and crews.

Thanks to the progressive artistic vision of the director, Jose Esquea and his company, this La Teatro La Tea/Soňadores Production of Romeo and Juliet revisited the age-old tale of star-crossed young lovers, set in modern day Lower East Side Manhattan, which like many other urban areas are experiencing shifts in demographics through immigration and gentrification... and unfortunate racial conflicts between ethnic minorities in some cases. While the setting, costumes, music and dance (the Salsa and hip hop/B-boy numbers were GREAT!) were all contemporized, Shakespeare's original script is left largely untouched, with the exception of certain lines delivered in Cantonese, Spanish, and Russian, again reflecting the fusions of language in the diverse cityscape of the Lower East Side.  Overall, the cast was extremely diverse, staying true to the theater company's mission of supporting Latino talent, while making room for Asian Americans (East, Southeast, and South Asian), African Americans, and White actors.  In the program, Esquea shares,

This year's production is set in present-day Lower East Side. the families of the star-crossed lovers are Latino (Capulets) and Asian (Montagues). We have chosen to also present brief moments within the play in Cantonese and Spanish.  Paris, the would-be suitor of Juliet is a Russian Jew -- his character as well will speak Russian during certain moments.  The actors for the most part decided where and when they could make the strongest connection to their ancestral tongue.  We in turn have learned to experience the play from a different perspective -- one that involves having more empathy for our humanity than simply whether we speak the same language or not.

Unlike the award winning film and musical, West Side Story, Esquea decided to bring classical Shakespeare to contemporary audiences, challenging us as the audience to recognize the importance of Shakespeare's work, showing us the beauty of the universal truth in the storylines and language, all while offering theatrical opportunities to minority actors who very rarely get the chance to do Shakespeare.  When have you heard of an Asian American male romantic lead???

Sisterly pride aside, the production connected emotionally with the audience, with many in tears at the end of the play over the romantic tragedy.  On another level, I think the tragedy of racial conflicts in our communities remains an unfortunate and true tale, and also touched the audience. Racial tensions were most recently discussed in relation to the political contest between Judy Chu and Gil Cedillo.  I also couldn't help but note that Spike Lee's classic film project on urban race relations, Do the Right Thing, celebrated its 20th anniversary this week.  Many of the themes addressed 20 years ago in Lee's groundbreaking project, remain true today, even in the "age of Obama" and the so-called "post-race era." Thus, Esquea's choice to feature racial conflict in his production of Romeo & Juliet makes the adaptation that much more impactful and relevant.

In fact, the foreword in the program, written by Professor Kobe Colemon (CUNY, Brooklyn College), confronts ignorance and race head on in the "Obama era", and does a great job summing up issues of race and inequality in today's society (excerpt):

Ignorance! Not just "white" and not any old ignorance, but an ignorance that's causally connected to race and ethnicity, whether directly or indirectly.  In normal circumstances, there are things you should know, things you should be able to get right, but don't because of race, because of ethnicity, because of culture and nationality, beacuse of the history of your positioning in a system of domination.

But times change....

Today, the new sense of not-knowing is colorblind. We find here a wonderful inversion of reality, where recognizing long-term deleterious effects of racism and white supremacy is what makes you a racist, ignoring them is what makes you a non-racist, and measures for remedial racial justice is "reverse" discrimination against whites (increasingly, the real victims of racial oppression)!  The problem is relocated to overtly discriminatory acts guided by deliberate intent where only scraggly-haired, oily faced white men wearing wife-beaters, swastikas, and dour expressions that turn into sneers when in the presence of any darker-skinned person can be racist.  For the rest of us, there is the assumption of white/nonwhite symmetry, no structural issues, no differential power, but rather a level playing field, summed up by the following pithy statment, "I voted for Obama."

Yet experience of the world is still racially dichotomized, and it's possible for some to grow up in an all-white world, white habitus, so even when nonwhites are around, your interaction with them is superficial, limited to contingent cooperation for specific tasks, office acquaintances - but never taken home, never penetrating the inner circles of intimacy where worldviews are ultimately shaped.  Family, dating, mating, friendship, are generally racially determined, all of which is reflected and reproduced in media, e.g., segregated hit TV shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City taking place in a bizarro-world, largely white New York City from some parallel dimension!

But we're still here.

And we know your story. The story we are about to tell, Romeo & Juliet, is one of the most enduring and popular romances of all time. The conception is tragic, the title characters archetypal. The story, though it rises up entirely from western tradition, is not individualistic, but universal. Yet rarely has it been given an ethnic setting (West Side Story, of course, comes to mind, but little else). Here at LA TEA, one could say that this is cultural appropriation, perhaps; but with historica appreciation, of a necesity, and I hereby confirm that what these actors say, and how they succeed in mastering theater, music, literature, and art, is true. Why? Because we know your story.

But do you know ours?

Sadly, the production's run ended tonight, despite packed houses every night over the last couple weeks.  The way the story was told by this cast and crew needs to be retold again and again in cities across the country to people of all ages.  I just hope that the stirrings in the White House to support art and culture are true, and that they support critical works like this that can impact our society beyond doing art for art's sake!  As Jose Esquea mentioned at the end of the play tonight, the arts are critical to our society especially in economically hard times.  It would be great to have this group tour across the country. It's been wildly popular in NYC, and would be just as popular if not more so in places like LA, SF, Chicago, Houston, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, etc.  If any art lovers with some cash are out there... this production is a real investment in theater like you've never seen it, and in the racial healing of our society. More people need to hear the message in this production!

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ebeh on Mon, 06/01/2009 - 12:41

This sounded like an amazing production - congratulations to your little brother!! This production needs to be shown in every theater in the U.S.!

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