Monday, August 9, 2010

Prop 8, Shakespeare, and Culture Clash

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past week, you know that Prop 8 was declared unconstitutional [SFGate]. This brought me oodles of happiness and hope for the future! It's history in the making, folks!

This also got me thinking about a couple theatrical treatments of the concept of the other, namely Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice [OSF] and a new play by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José [OSF].

Each of these plays deals with the struggle of minorities under the persecution of pre-conceived notions and negative stereotypes in the community at large. These plays bring up a lot of cultural guilt in the brusque dialogue. Finally, the endings are a little bittersweet.

American Night follows Juan José, a Mexican immigrant studying for his United States citizenship exam. He reviews his flashcards on the night before his exam and falls asleep. His fever dream descends into wackiness under the sketch comedy stylings of Culture Clash. The small cast depicts various historical figures, all spewing cliché racial slurs of their respective eras. Juan José realizes that there has been a lot of cross-cultural shadiness in this country's history, from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, to Japanese internment camps, to today's Tea Baggers Party. The historical guilt almost sours him on the idea of becoming an American citizen. However, I think the Bob Dylan-esque character says it best with the line, "America sucks, man, but she swallows!"

If you make it up to Ashland, Oregon, I highly suggest the show because it made me laugh to the point of tears!

Although American Night's satirical use of racial slurs doesn't really challenge our own behavior (then again, I only speak for happy-clappy, multi-cultural liberals like myself), I definitely thought it the perfect play to watch before Merchant of Venice

Now, this production of Merchant of Venice, like most productions, is quite controversial. No lines were cut, not even the ugliest anti-Semitic insults. This particular comedy is dripping in irony. The Christian good guys are downright despicable, whereas Shylock is a sympathetic character. Interestingly, Anthony Heald is OSF's first Jewish actor to play Shylock.

I think Shakespeare equivocates through the whole play. After all, Shakespeare was born into a Catholic family in Protestant England, at a time when it was pretty much illegal to be Catholic. He knew what it was like to be the target of discrimination and alienation. Shakespeare presents his own thoughts against such discrimination in Shylock's famous monologue. You know the one: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" etc. Shakespeare knows his audience, though, so he has to give the play a happy ending by bestowing on Shylock some good, old-fashioned, love-thy-neighbor, saving grace of Christ.


Right, so Judge Vaughn Walker did a great job in calling out the irrational bigotry of the supporters of Prop 8. When it comes down to it, these jerks use religion, tradition, and ideals to justify their "I hate my [adjective] neighbor" mentality. In the case of Prop 8, the adjective is "gay." In American Night, it's some form of "brown." In Merchant of Venice, it's "Jewish" (or "Catholic," from Shakespeare's point of view). Just goes to show you how little things have changed over the centuries, huh?

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