‘Romeo and Juliet’ captures tensions — then and now


Gabriella Backus, Artistic Editor

omeo and Juliet¨ has been reimagined by the Bear Creek drama department — instead of taking place in Verona, Italy, in the 1300s, this version of “Romeo and Juliet” is set during the 1940s Zoot Suit Riots, tension-ridden era in which white servicemen launched attacks against Mexican Americans and other minorities.

The performance follows the traditional Romeo and Juliet plot: two nobles from fighting families, the Capulets and Montagues, fall in love at first sight and agree to marry the next morning. Due to unsettled tension between the lovers’ parents, pressure from Juliet’s parents to marry a suitor, and gravely humorous miscommunication, the pair commit suicide in each other’s arms before anyone can stop them.

Interracial relationships were illegal until 1967, so the play aims to focus on the marriage between Romeo and Juliet, who have been cast to appear interracial.

Due to high demand for two lead roles, the show was triple cast, featuring three Juliets (Ashley Piña, Sammi Maynard, and Miniya Brisbane) and two Romeos (Cris Arsement and Ashley Ricafrente). Arsement played Romeo for both Pina and Brisbane, while Ricafrente and Maynard were a set duo.

Viewers have pointed out the political messages in the play referencing the president and some of his campaign’s famous slogans. The sides of the stage are adorned with signs reading “Make Verona Great Again” and “Pachuco Pride.”

“The Zoot Suit Riots are similar to what’s happening now, like threats of massive deportation,” Maynard said. “When the director told us about the Zoot Suit Riots, we made all these connections.”

The messages have raised criticism by viewers who were not expecting to see such prominent displays in a seemingly politics-free production.

“At first, I was caught a bit off-guard by these political allusions to Trump,” sophomore Kaleb Taylor said. “I was a little irritated because it was like an attack on Trump’s policies, even though the play doesn’t seem like it would have any relation to modern politics. It felt like they just had to throw in the jabs.”

But the cast members disagree. “The way we presented it, the whole show wasn’t explicitly saying anything,” Ricafrente said. “It’s sprinkled into the script [so] that you could interpret it that way. It’s not good to force, but it’s good to be open-minded.”

Controversy has also surrounded the choice to cast a leading same-sex pair. In theater, the roles are chosen based on the actors’ skill and not their gender.

“Verbally, most criticism is coming from students,” Arsement said. “But the genuine concern is from parents.”

Historically, Shakespearean actors were all men, as women were not allowed to perform in theatre. Despite this fact, there have been complaints from students and parents alike, and the leads were forced to sign a contract explicitly stating they were comfortable kissing and acting with a member of the same sex.

“There have been people requesting the opposite only, and people who went to the same-sex pairing show said their relatives didn’t want to go,” Ricafrente said.

Theater director Cassie Champeau, the director of ¨Romeo and Juliet,¨ told the cast they were not allowed to tell hopeful viewers what day the same-sex pairing was after it was brought to her attention that some people were unwilling to go on those days.

Aside from the controversy, viewers seemed generally pleased with the actors’ reinterpretation of “Romeo and Juliet,” but there were a few technical issues.

Actors spoke too quickly for the audience to understand Shakespearean English, and their mics or speaking voices were quieter than the background music.

“I felt that overall it was good, but they talked too fast and it was hard to understand them at times,” freshman Ethen Smith said. “The mics were too quiet, so I couldn’t really hear them. Their expressions were a little deadpan.”

Despite these minor distractions, the cast was eager to show off their hard work to their community.

“The whole cast is very proud of our show, whether people choose to accept it,” Maynard said.