Carla Della Gatta

Latinx Shakespeares: Staging U.S. Intracultural Theater

University of Michigan Press, 2023

280 pages

Hardcover $95.00; Paperback $39.95; Ebook Open Access

Reviewed by Michael Vaclav

Carla Della Gatta describes the project of Latinx Shakespeares as an evaluation of what we may learn about Latinx cultures through their representations in productions of Shakespearean plays, and, simultaneously, what these Latinx productions and adaptations may reveal about the Shakespearean text itself. In this project, Della Gatta grapples with fundamental questions of culture, language, categorization, and the history of racial and linguistic inequities upon which professional theater, particularly in the United States, has been built. Through a meticulous evaluation of case studies ranging from the 1957 debut of West Side Story, and the 2021 film adaptation of that same play, to a staged reading of O-Dogg, a 2019 adaptation of Othello set during the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, Della Gatta traces both the successful and the problematic intersections of Latinidad with Shakespearean texts.

Methodologically, Della Gatta draws meaning from each case study through evaluation of its performance, its production, and its reception, building, as she notes, on the work of Ric Knowles in Reading the Material Theatre. Each chapter of Latinx Shakespeares engages a specific aspect of performance and reception, focusing on a single case study, or a small sample drawn from the same company or context. Across these evaluations, Della Gatta consistently treats Latinx Shakespeare as an ideological movement towards empathetic healing. While many productions fall short, reinforcing stereotypes rather than undermining and challenging them, the broader tidal forces of inclusivity and accessibility push towards a hopeful future for both Latinidad and the Shakespearean stage.

The first chapter, “Division: The West Side Story Effect,” reads the importance of division within the text of Romeo and Julietand how that theme is translated from social animosity into ethnic division between white and Latinx in West Side Story. Contrasting the homogeneously Puerto Rican Sharks—although Della Gatta notes that there has traditionally been very little about the Sharks that is specifically Puerto Rican—with the more nuanced whiteness of the Jets, West Side Story laid the foundation of Shakespearean engagement with Latinx stereotypes. Latinidad becomes a monolith that is pitted against European whiteness. As Della Gatta notes, Shakespeare’s plays are often driven by factious divisions between families or groups, and the contrast of Latinx characters with white characters has often been cast in that model. In the case of West Side Story, this was accomplished with costuming, casting, and—frequently—brownface makeup. In other productions, this is accomplished through language and other manners of speech.

The second chapter of Latinx Shakespeares focuses on this aurality and the ways in which “sonic phenomenology” may invoke ethnicity. Examining two productions from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the 2011 Measure for Measure directed by Bill Rauch and the 2012 Romeo and Juliet directed by Laird Williamson, Della Gatta explores her concept of ‘auralidad,’ which she defines as “an affective soundscape that is a performance of aural excess.” Moving beyond the visual signifiers of race and ethnicity, the deployment of auralidad as a site for meaning does much of the theoretical heavy lifting within Latinx Shakespeares, and echoes of this category of interpretation reverberate through each of the following case studies. In the OSF productions examined in this chapter, auralidad is found primarily in the code-switching that the introduction of Spanish language allows. Bilingual productions bring novel awareness of class and power structures, such as in a Measure for Measurewhere the duke is white and his deputy, Angelo, is an “upwardly mobile Latino” who prosecutes the young Latino Claudio mercilessly in order to prove that he has no racial sympathies. Such linguistic signifiers both attract and alienate audience members, particularly in the United States, who may be monolingual English speakers, but Della Gatta also highlights this audience reception in the significance and functionality of auralidad in Latinx productions. 

Moving to the theme of “Identity,” the third chapter focuses on adaptations that foreground themes of immigration and anti-Blackness within both Latinx communities and colonial contexts. Directly working against the depiction of the monolithic and ambiguous Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, this engagement with Latinx identity examines three productions that “center Filipinx, Afro-Latinx, and Indigenous characters and dramaturgically incorporate themes of immigration, anti-Blackness within Latinx communities, and colonialism, respectively.” Across a 2016 production of Twelfth Night foregrounding a Filipinx Viola, the 2019 spoken-word O-Dogg: An Angeleno Take on “Othello,” and a 2009 production of The Winter’s Tale set in colonial California, Della Gatta traces the feeling of ‘Brownness’ that is also inherent to the Latinx experience. Described as a shared experience of violence that transcends specific ethnicity, race, and language, Della Gatta asserts that “only through understanding Latinx as a feeling of Brown, rather than a culture to be represented, can Latinx Shakespeares move outside of the counter stance of Latinx-white solidified by West Side Story.” 

The final chapters of Latinx Shakespeares examine the ways in which these aspects of performance are actively deployed to break down colonial contexts. Chapter Four takes up the explicit theme of “Decoloniality” through what Della Gatta calls the ‘bilingualing’ of the theater. Utilizing auralidad to confront and displace linguistic racism, the bilingualing of the theater, and Shakespeare in particular, critiques Western hegemonies and ways of thinking. This project is continued and expanded as Latinx productions branch out and appear more broadly throughout the United States. The fifth chapter, titled “El Publico,” examines the intersection of spectatorship and healing through engagement with both Shakespeare and ethnic theater. Through the “radical imagination” inherent in the production of Latinx Shakespeares, Della Gatta here examines the productive and formative work that draws new audiences and creates what she calls “new publics.” In a theatrical space defined by West Side Story and often occupied by the homogenous demographics that are drawn to Shakespeare, these new audiences and publics are deployed in the hopeful and reparative work that exposure to Latinx productions of Shakespeare facilitates.

The final chapter of Latinx Shakespeares looks to the future of Latinx Shakespeare and its place within Shakespearean critical history. Focusing on a 2014 adaptation of Henry IV, Part I, titled El Henry, Della Gatta asks how the most specific Shakespearean genre, the History Play, can be adapted and translated into a Latinx production. In this post-apocalyptic speculative history, Shakespeare’s work is transposed and offers a vision of nation-building facilitated by the same ethnic divisions that were foundational to West Side Story. In the case of El Henry, these divisions are cast as reparative and offer to build community through the representation of a history of Latinx futurism.

Della Gatta concludes with the statement that “Latinx Shakespeares is a story of possibility.” Throughout her descriptions and critical engagement with the case studies contained within this book, that sentiment rings true. Latinx productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays not only track with broader trends toward cultural diversity and inclusivity, but they are also shown to be active drivers of those movements. The pairing of Shakespearean texts with Latinx adaptation is particularly revelatory, and Della Gatta balances her descriptions of each play and performance so that scholars from each of the overlapping areas of Latinidad, Shakespeare, and performance studies are grounded and engaged. Latinx Shakespeares is an indispensable record of, and argument for, the richness and productivity of Shakespearean performance of, by, and for Latinidad.