Q&A: The Bilingualism & Love of Romeo Y Juliet

Playwright Karen Zacarías Discusses Her New Play’s Visionary Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Iconic Romantic Tragedy
Playwright Karen Zacarías premieres her new play Romeo y Juliet at the Bruns Amphitheater from May 25 – June 19, 2022. Photo Credit: Karen Zacarías

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Karen Zacarías is a playwright who is originally from Mexico and who has written extensively about the Latinx experience in the US. From writing heart wrenching plays about young people caught in the web of the undocumented immigrant experience in America, to various award-winning and educational family friendly productions, Zacarías brings forth a vivid spectrum of human emotions in all of her work.

In 2020 California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) was to premiere Zacarías’ newest play, a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s most famous work, titled Romeo y Juliet. The all-bilingual show was postponed due to the pandemic, and after two years of preparation and retooling it is ready to premiere this season at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda from May 25 – June 19, 2022.

The adaptation of this story of star-crossed lovers destined to be together in life or death takes place in Alta California in the 1840’s, where two opposing Mexican families battle for control and power amongst the natural wonder that is present day Northern California. On the opposite ends of these families are their two young daughters, Romeo and Juliet. Their love finds itself at odds within a clashing world of politics and morality involving their families, the Catholic church, and the quickly changing world of California as it is taken over by the United States.

Recently we were fortunate to have an opportunity to speak to Zacarías about Romeo y Juliet and its aim to tell a story that never forgets the Shakespearean roots but makes everything fresh and inventive, and rooted back to Latinidad and Mexican history that is forever entwined into the soil of California. 

To start off I wanted to see if you could give some insight into where the idea came to make this bilingual version of Romeo and Juliet?

I had written a bilingual version of Romeo and Juliet many years ago for another project, and director KJ Sanchez and artistic director Eric Ting had found it. And I was young when I wrote it, and it was just a reading kind of situation. It was an early idea, and they were very intrigued by it, [so] we decided to go back and revisit and reimagine it, making it more relevant to California and issues that we were all dealing with now.

We all discussed about [how] Romeo and Juliet has been done in so many different ways, and considered what a bilingual version would look like and every time I bring it up, they’re like, “oh, the Montagues speaking English and the Capulets speaking Spanish?”

I was like, “no, no, no, almost everyone is bilingual except the prince Paris. Like, it’s the idea of what it means to be Latino, Chicano or etcetera living in this country. Though it’s set in 1848 in Alta California, when the American government is taking over Mexican land, so it’s at a very fraught moment.”

And so once we started doing that, it became like this labor of love, of how to take this beautiful [text] I mean, no one can fault Shakespeare, right? Like, he’s got a beautiful text, but how to start weaving in a more contemporary Spanish and how to make sure that it’s an interesting experiment, how to make sure that by adding Spanish, we actually make the text more accessible and more understandable to both language speakers, because in some ways, to experience English can seem like a foreign language in a way that’s more far from us than actually Spanish is.

So, it’s this interesting experiment that we’re doing with feathering and finding dramatic moments to why we change, why the actors change language. And as bilingual people know, sometimes being bilingual is like, you grab the words like a piece of fruit that’s closest to you, you can pick. And so that kind of energy is in it. But we hope that whether you’re only a Spanish Speaker or only an English Speaker or you speak none of the languages, that the power and emotional resonance of the story will help carry us along to any parts that you don’t understand with your ears, but you understand with your heart.

How much of your original concept continued on to this expanded version, or how did you go about evolving it to this finished play?

We completely took what I left behind and I readapted it like three times! We did one version with KJ, what’s really interesting is KJ has been Juliet, so she’s been inside the play and I’m looking at it as someone from outside and I’m more bilingual than she is. I was born in Mexico and all of that. So we both brought our skills together and her was her innate knowledge of Shakespeare, and mine with my more innate understanding of the language and the rhythms of Spanish, we were this great partnership because we both carry parts there.

So the original script I have looks nothing like the script we have now. And covid came in and so we threw out the pre-covid script and redid it. It’s interesting because we have also never been in the room together with the actors, so developing this wasn’t as natural as it would have been if we’d all been in one room. So we keep discovering things now that we’re in a room together.

The story of this play takes place in Alta California and involves feuding families just like the original, but it’s two daughters on opposing sides in this one. Could you elaborate on where that came from and why you chose that direction?

KJ, having been Juliet, she was like, “There’s always something about the idea of making it a love story [where] the stakes are higher, not only because both families are feuding and trying to get in the good graces of the new American invaders right?” They want to hopefully keep their land. With the idea that the daughters don’t fit into the norm, so it’s not just their love that’s the problem but their kind of love.

And also, KJ kept saying, “I want it to be that the two lovers have so little options, but you understand why it seems like that is the only out because in some ways you could think, ‘oh, well, Juliet could be banished together or something like that, but their love is more fraught’.” And also with it you have “what is love anyway?”, it was another experiment that we just wanted to try and we had also a wealth of amazing Latina actors to play with on it. And so that was kind of born of it.

And it’s actually very moving in the sense, there’s a sensibility that changes both because of the language and both about seeing these young women meet such violent ends.

I was curious because it does take place here in California, how much research was done for it and how much inspiration from actual historical aspects is in this?

Yes. Different things like first of all, the costumes are of the time. Second of all, historically, it raises stakes because both the Montagues and the Capulets are Mexican families and the treaty of Hidalgo just happened, the Americans are taking over California. And even though they promised Mexicans they could keep their land; we all know how that story ended up.

And so people are vying to staying in the good graces with the prince and also competing for which party basically wins, the Capulets or the Montagues. I think there’s a big resonance there. And the idea of errant priests, or renegade priests the further you get from the Vatican, as we see with the independence of Mexico, like Miguel Hidalgo and all of that. The idea of priests straying a little bit from the teachings of the Church, but to do what they think is right, also kind of informed the script.

Plus they’re using spears, it’s the wild West, we have Romeo with a lasso and the actress whose learned how to do that.

Another thing is that we make this feel accessible, etcetera. We streamlined the story so it’s shorter, it’s not the whole Shakespeare script. And we really focus on the young people because in many ways, Romeo and Juliet is about how society has been getting involved with their fights and power and all of that, how young people have been left to fend for themselves.

And it really is a story about adults failing our children and I think we found a way to really kind of accentuate that storyline through this adaptation.

You were mentioning that you’ve streamlined and made it more accessible. Is it your hope that young people and Latinos in general come and see this?

Yeah, because our show is short, it’s swift, it’s sassy, and it’s controversial. We’re playing with Shakespeare in a way that hasn’t been played with in a long time. And after a pandemic and being caught and seeing the whole kind of mess around us in so many ways, we’re like, “What is it that we want to say as a troop, as a society, as cultural Americans? What is it that we want to say about this world?” And I think KJ’s production is going to be really sexy, really fierce, and I think people are going to be talking about it because in some ways, what I hope, is that it being bilingual actually makes it more understandable than if it was just in one language, there’s an energy about it.

Thanks again Karen. Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to add about Romeo y Juliet?

Just to sit outside in an evening with your friends and to take in this story that’s lasted for 450 years, but see ourselves reflected on stage. To see Latinidad, the Mexican culture, Mexican history, and the diversity of being Mexican. How there’s not a monolith on stage, there’s different points of view – conservative Mexicans, liberal Mexicans people from all hues and all of that on stage. I think it’s a constant reminder to this country that we’ve been part of this fabric for a very long time, and this story is all our stories.

Tickets and more information available at calshakes.org.

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