NEWS REPORT The suspect accused in a deadly shooting spree at spas in the Atlanta area is telling police it was not racially motivated. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Quoting police in the immediate aftermath of an event without qualification, is a given, but it is and always has been bad practice. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD and I'm Bob Garfield. The shootings in Atlanta exposed what for many Americans was hiding in plain sight.
ERIKA LEE There is an erasure of the history of anti-Asian discrimination and violence in the U.S. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard the phrase "I never knew that this happened."
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, a Romeo and Juliet that crosses the barrier of language.
ROMEO Her eye discourses, I will answer it. Aye pero qué atrevido! Tis' not to me she speaks. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. By now, the whole world knows that on Tuesday, Robert Long had a day.
CHEROKEE COUNTY PD He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him. And this is what he did. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The "this" according to Cherokee County Sheriff's Office Captain Jay Baker, being allegedly gunning down eight people, including six Asian women, in three spas around Atlanta. In the early days after the murders, we knew the alleged shooter's middle name, his church, his self-declared reasons for the attack, but as I write this on Friday, we are only just learning all the names of the people he killed. Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon C. Park, Suncha Kim and Yong Ae Yue. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz was the sole victim to survive the attacks.
REPORTER Was this racially motivated?
CHEROKEE COUNTY PD We believe that he frequented these places in the past and he may have been lashing out.
REPORTER But the working theory is a sexual addiction issue rather than a racial profile.
CHEROKEE COUNTY PD During our interviews, we asked that specific question and that did not appear to be the motive. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So much, as they say in literature classes, to unpack there. To begin with, the bloodbath capped a plague of anti-Asian American incidents from coast to coast. Nearly 3800 assaults and other types of harassment in the pandemic year. That's according to a report released the day of the shootings from the organization: Stop Asian-American Pacific Islander Hate, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, found such incidents were up 150 percent last year. Attributed in part to the rhetoric of certain politicians.
TRUMP But you don't hear them talking about COVID, COVID. That name gets further and further away from China as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And how about a white man arrested for a mass shooting and being afforded a level of empathy seldom if ever afforded black and brown criminal suspects. Which empathy came from a sheriff's officer who himself had posted a COVID-related anti-China image on his Facebook page. And how about a law enforcement explanation of motive that sounded suspiciously like victim blaming?
CHEROKEE COUNTY PD These locations, he sees them as an outlet for him, that some things that he shouldn't be doing and that is an issue with porn and that he was attempting to take out that temptation [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Once again, just the guy at the end of his rope doing a little temptation eradication. Go on folks, nothing racist or misogynist to see here. And a media pack so hungry for the latest that it barely questioned what it was fed, but merely regurgitated the official narrative.
NEWS REPORT Up next, at 6:30, was the shooter actually motivated by a sex addiction? [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT New at noon, the suspect accused in a deadly shooting spree at spas in the Atlanta area is telling police it was not racially motivated. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Police say they interviewed Long overnight, and that he claims his motivation was sex addiction. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The narrative the mainstream press was very late to glom onto, though, was the local Korean language press coverage, which spoke to an eyewitness who claimed the shooter declared: "I'll kill all Asians."
NEWS REPORT There was a report, you may have seen it, that a witness heard the suspect say that he was there to kill all Asians. Well, I talked to the sheriff of Cherokee County about that repeatedly today. And in the end, he categorically denied the report. Says no one reported hearing anything like that. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That also may be unreliable, but should CNBC's Shep Smith have given last word to the cops? These cops? Much as Black Lives Matter pulled the curtain back on daily life-while-black, a series of lawmakers from both parties testified before Congress on Thursday on what the Cherokee sheriff's department seems slow to grasp.
REP YOUNG KIM The hate, the bias and the attacks that we've seen against the Asian-American community are unacceptable and they must be stopped.
REP GRACE MENG Anti-Asian rhetoric like China virus, kung-flu, misinformation, racism have left Asian-Americans traumatized and fearful for their lives.
REP TED LIEU I served on active duty, so you can say whatever you want on the First Amendment. You can say racist, stupid stuff if you want, but I'm asking you to please stop using racist terms like kung-flu, Wuhan virus or other ethnic identifiers in describing this virus, I am not a virus. And when you say things like that, it hurts the Asian-American community. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And it isn't just in recent weeks. As long as we're unpacking, let's look beyond the week's headlines to the past 140 years. An American history of committing violence against Asians almost as soon as they immigrated to these shores.
ERIKA LEE This is one of the ways in which American racism works. Asian-Americans have been identified as foreigners rather than citizens.
BOB GARFIELD Erika Lee is director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.
ERIKA LEE It's the history of the expulsion of all of Seattle's Chinese and Chinese American residents in 1886. It's the story of how hundreds of people were intimidated and then forced under armed guard to leave their homes and businesses. Herded together and forced to board a steamship out of town in 1886. This episode is hardly ever taught in our history books. It's almost impossible to find any monument or recognition or plaque or any historical marker related to this brutal history, in Seattle, a city known for its progressiveness. A city that, in the early 20th century, marketed itself as a gateway to the Orient. This is nothing to bash on Seattle, it's just a reflection of the violence and then erasure that exists and that continues to endure in relationship to Asian-American history.
BOB GARFIELD The injustice, she says, particularly marginalized women,
ERIKA LEE The stereotypes in the media images that permeate American popular culture from the 19th century up through the present, either focus on the Asian dragon lady, the madame who runs the the whorehouse, or the degraded Asian female prostitute, or the submissive geisha who finds fulfillment in serving, typically a white male partner or customer, or the well-meaning Vietnamese prostitute from the Vietnam War era films.
BOB GARFIELD The stereotypes firmly cemented, Lee says, with the expansion of the American empire.
ERIKA LEE We have had such a long term heavy presence of US military in Okinawa and South Korea, the Philippines and the resulting sex trade and sex work that has exploited Asian women. It's part of that culture, of that military experience, of the culture of U.S. empire.
BOB GARFIELD Not only did American culture fetishize Asian women here and abroad, U.S. policies meted out collective punishment based on ethnic stereotypes and nothing more.
ERIKA LEE We have not just excluded Asian immigrants, but the very first group that we actually barred from the United States were Asian immigrant women because of this idea that they were either prostitutes or potential prostitutes. This is the 1875 Page Act, which is our first federal immigration law passed in the US.
BOB GARFIELD But if we're discussing the paradox of both exploiting and punishing Asian-Americans for the same supposed sins, wrap your head around this. The same immigrant group excoriated by society was later embraced as a shining example for all ethnic groups of how to successfully integrate into the dominant white economy and culture. Jason Oliver Chang is associate professor of history, as well as Asian and Asian-American studies at the University of Connecticut. He says that a half century ago, Asian-Americans were dubiously characterized as model immigrants. When the 1965 Hart-Celler Act was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson.
JASON OLIVER CHANG Hartzler Act established a new system of governing U.S. immigration by establishing a merit-based approach that gave preferences to certain categories of people and eliminating the country quota numbers. And this dramatically opened up immigration to new flows of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, and then became the preferred mode of immigration for a number of companies, from agribusiness to high tech companies. These flows of highly skilled immigrants fueled a dominant image of who Asian-Americans were in this period of rapid growth for Asian migration.
BOB GARFIELD There's this immigrant cohort that on one hand is welcomed with open arms, and yet simultaneously, subject to discrimination and violence. Violence, which didn't even register in the national psyche,
JASON OLIVER CHANG one of the challenging things among many with the idea of the model minority is that by recognizing discrimination being targeted for violence, it disrupts a national narrative about success, about civil rights progress, and it disrupts a convenient story about how Asian-Americans fit into a liberal, progressive society. And so in some ways, the erasure of their experiences is required to maintain that image of Asian-Americans as the diligent worker, as the person who won't rock the boat.
BOB GARFIELD Is it erasure or is it more like the failure to connect dots? Erica Lee spoke to us about the expulsion of Seattle's Chinese residents in 1886. There was another sort of pogrom in the 1870s in L.A. Can you tell me about that?
JASON OLIVER CHANG In 1871, October 24, there was a conflict between Chinese people that led to the killing of a cop and another white resident, and that led to a majority of the residents, around five hundred people to descend on to the Chinatown, where they killed between 17 and 20 people. I was able to read some first-person testimony and just the gruesome details behind it just demonstrated a wholesale cleansing of a neighborhood. Grabbing anyone at their disposal and lynching them in the streets, on the premise that they were clearing out the impurities and making Los Angeles a safe place.
BOB GARFIELD This gets back to that notion of erasure or at least of malignant indifference. This is a country that kind of savors its massacres. We all know about the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago, we know about Custer's last stand and the lynchings in the Jim Crow South, the Chinese massacre of 1871, I'm embarrassed to say it's news to me. How does it come to pass that an entire society, if I'm speaking for it, fails to notice a crime so grave?
JASON OLIVER CHANG I think part of that comes from a deeply ingrained sense that Asians don't belong and that their history, no matter how consequential, important or their contributions, however great they may have been, are irrelevant to the understanding of the development of the United States.
BOB GARFIELD That massacre was 150 years ago. In the 80s, however, there were two other ghastly crimes. One, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982,
NEWS REPORT 2 white men, beat Chin to death a few days before his wedding. Chin was Chinese, but he was blamed for the rise of Japan's auto industry at a time when America was losing manufacturing jobs. His killers essentially got away with it. They received probation and a 3,000 dollar fine. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And a school shooting in Stockton, California, where all the victims were Southeast Asian refugees.
NEWS REPORT In 1989, a mass shooting at an elementary school in Stockton was the worst the nation had ever seen. 5 children were killed, 30 students and teachers wounded. [END CLIP]
JASON OLIVER CHANG These two events, put together, demonstrate that there is a sense of no consequence for practicing violence against Asians. It's really difficult to paint a detailed image of who Asian Americans are in a society which knows very little about why they're here. And so in that absence, atrocities and the attacks on Asian Americans appear random, chaotic and episodic.
BOB GARFIELD If part of the problem is invisibility, you have a plan at least for your home state. What is it?
JASON OLIVER CHANG That's right. We need to make our communities safe now. But we also need to educate our children and create a new narrative about who belongs here. The thing that made me a historian was an experience I had with my grandmother where I was asking her about when she moved from Maui to Honolulu during the Depression and she stopped in midsentence in explaining it and asked me why did I care about her story? And she said, no one cares about what happened to me, and it broke my heart because I cared about her. I think that students shouldn't have to wait until college, if they make it to college, to find Asian-American studies. And so I've been advocating for proposed Senate Bill 678, which is a bill to include Asian-American and Pacific Islander studies in the Connecticut state curriculum. This is building off of recent successes to include African American and Puerto Rican Latino studies in our schools. When we do that, we eliminate the space for those stereotypes to grab hold of people, and they make sense of their world based on a deeper historical appreciation. But I really want to shift the political stakes from my history, their history, to a broader sense of our history. In order to create an equitable and just society - we have to do that together, and I think the schools are a way for us to practice that.
BOB GARFIELD Jason, thank you very much.
JASON OLIVER CHANG Bob, this is a really challenging conversation and I really appreciate the attention to it.
BOB GARFIELD Jason Oliver Chang is director of the Asian and Asian-American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. So, what is happening when we look but cannot see, when we see but cannot remember? Professor Erika Lee.
ERIKA LEE I cannot tell you how many times when I start lecturing to a class or give a public talk or speak to the media. How many times I've heard the phrase 'I've never heard that before," "I never knew that this happened." And I've been teaching a long time, at the beginning, I thought, you're right. You know, I had never heard this until recently either until I had started studying it, but now I'm angry, frustrated. There are so many books, so many documentaries, so many scholars and writers who do write about and center the histories of Asian Pacific Americans, including these horrific histories of violence and discrimination. And so I'm left to wonder why this history of violence is not being paid attention to, is not being taught, and why we have to reeducate over and over again, time and time again, every time something like this happens, because it does happen. It has happened. And it's going to continue to happen, unfortunately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the Green Lantern theory of the American presidency.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last weekend, the Biden administration began distributing the fruits of the American rescue plan, its first major win in Congress.
NEWS REPORT Let me show you what we're talking about for a typical family of 4 with 2 young children. Each family member, they're going to get one of those 1400 dollar stimulus checks. That's going to total to about 5600 dollars. Then on top of that, they're getting an additional child tax credit for 2600 dollars for two of those kids, and for a total, listen to this 8200 dollars for that family [END CLIP]
BERNIE SANDERS This is the most significant piece of legislation passed for working families in many, many decades. It is an historic bill. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT 28.6 billion dollars for the restaurant industry, airlines get another 15 billion dollars there, 7.25 billion to expand the payroll protection program, 1.7 Billion for Amtrak and easier rules for the live entertainment venues to access their aid. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But amidst this sea of stimulus was one glaring absence. One of Biden's core campaign promises.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT One thing progressives are deeply disappointed by, though, was the absence of the 15 dollar minimum wage from the American rescue plan. It was taken out by the Senate parliamentarian and the White House didn't fight that. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After a handful of moderate Democrats shot down the minimum wage hike, some progressive journalists blamed Biden for not fighting tooth and nail – I mean, really, really trying – to get it in the bill. This belief that a president's legislative shortcomings are the product of a lack of will is what some media critics call the Green Lantern theory of the presidency. The Green Lantern Corps., for those unfamiliar with the DC Comics canon, are a class of superheroes who can conjure supernatural weapons using sheer willpower. As in that Ryan Reynolds movie from 2011.
GREEN LANTERN Anything I see in my mind, I can create, I just have to focus.
CAROL Anything? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But according to Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and the man who coined the term "the Green Lantern theory of the presidency," the idea overstates the power of the executive. He says that even when there's a will, there may not be a way.
BRENDAN NYHAN My understanding is the Green Lantern Corps have a ring whose powers are limited only by the wearer's willpower. Matt Iglesias is a blogger, he originally applied that idea to geopolitics. He was criticizing conservatives who said the failures of U.S. foreign policy in the post 9/11 era were attributable to a lack of will. And I saw that same idea as being applicable to domestic politics too, where the president's powers are actually quite limited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so all this brings us to the criticism currently directed at Joe Biden. Many progressives are upset by the failure to include the 15 dollar minimum wage, and argued that Biden could have done more to convince Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona who voted against it. David Sirota wrote in The Guardian, he's a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders, the famous example from Lyndon B. Johnson's fight for Medicare as proof that a tough president can strong arm members of Congress into adopting his goals.
BRENDAN NYHAN Yeah, I think that LBJ arm twisting myth has been a major contributor to Green Lantern style discourse around the president. That the president can, through the kind of cajoling described in these famous accounts, bring numerous votes to his side in Congress. It's very difficult for the president to move votes in Congress. Ask Barack Obama for most of his time in office. Ask Donald Trump, ask any occupant of the White House. LBJ came into office with huge Democratic majorities. Joe Biden has a margin of zero votes in the Senate. Joe Manchin represents a state where almost 70 percent of people voted for Donald Trump. I'm not sure what arm twisting could cause him to vote against his political interests. The Democrats are an anchor around his neck politically. Withdrawing their support from him is not some kind of a threat. It probably helps him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Getting back to LBJ, you say that he is one of two main illustrations that would seem to support the Green Lantern theory. The other president is Ronald Reagan.
BRENDAN NYHAN Rather than LBJ style arm twisting. Activists say that the president could marshal public opinion, if they only made the case publicly, they could win over the public to their side and therefore rally Congress to support their priorities. This was a recurring theme in the Obama years because he was a quite skilled orator. The evidence, however, suggests that presidential speechmaking is often ineffective. Ronald Reagan wrote in his own diaries when he was president that his case for aid to the Contras in Latin America failed to rally support, and reportedly he was even told by his own pollster that the public comments he was offering on behalf of the cause were actually making it harder for him by rallying opposition. And that's the dilemma that presidents face. David Frum, the conservative commentator, has argued that one of the most effective communication strategies of the early Biden administration has been how little he has talked. Precisely because it avoids making him the focal point of a conversation, given that presidents are so polarizing in our current era. So, again, the idea here is it's not a case of the president failing to deploy their public communication powers, it's that those public communication powers are highly overrated. Once the president gets the issues where they don't have the votes, sometimes they will try. Barack Obama campaigned quite extensively on behalf of gun control and renewed those efforts after high profile mass shootings. But it was fruitless. He would campaign on behalf of it because maybe it could help move the needle, but it never was enough to successfully enact the legislation the administration was proposing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggested that it's worth paying attention to what Biden doesn't say as much as he does say. Like he didn't talk publicly about the impeachment vote.
BRENDAN NYHAN That's right. He's stayed away from so many controversies like vaccines, where it's very important for everyone in this country to get vaccinated, and for that not to be seen as a partisan or polarizing issue. And so the administration's communication strategy very much emphasizes local and community leaders and trusted sources rather than national political figures who could be more polarizing. That may be a smart kind of communication strategy in 21st century America. Liberals in particular want to believe in a West Wing version of the world where oratory wins people over, and that's just not a way politics works and presidents learn that over and over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of course, the Biden style is the exact opposite of Trump, who you called in 2015, the purest Green Lantern candidate we've seen in recent years. What do you mean?
BRENDAN NYHAN Donald Trump again and again claimed that he would make things happen through sheer force of will. He would cut the best deals. This was most often expressed when it came to trade. Change the balance of trade with China, reverse the decline of American manufacturing.
TRUMP Politicians are all talk, no action. Nothing's gonna to get done. They will not bring us, believe me, to the promised land. [END CLIP]
BRENDAN NYHAN He promised everything to everyone. And we saw how limited his powers of persuasion were, even in a party that was enthralled to him. Republicans are terrified of being on the wrong side of Donald Trump politically. They're extremely unwilling to support his impeachment, to call out his attacks on the integrity of the election or to denounce the scandals. But when it came to legislation, the Republican Party did what the Republican Party wanted to do for the most part. Donald Trump's signature legislative achievement was a conventional Republican tax cut. His health care policy was a conventional health care policy proposal from the Republican side, which ultimately failed. The only areas where he was able to really change the direction of the party on policy were those that didn't require votes in Congress. He faced all the same legislative constraints that have frustrated past presidents and was not able to bluster past them. However, we discovered during the Trump presidency that we depended on the president respecting the democratic norms of our system, such as not calling for the imprisonment of your political opponents or attacking the integrity of an election in which you were defeated. Those norms can be overridden through sheer force of will. Donald Trump was willing to cross those lines in a way that past presidents weren't. We should not only recognize how frequently presidents overstate their ability to get what they want but be wary of what happens when they actually succeed. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let me return to David Sirota's Guardian piece from earlier this month for a minute. He actually responded to your Green Lantern theory formulation by saying, hey, if we adopted your position, we'd be succumbing to what he calls the, quote, powerless president narrative. Is it possible that by invoking the Green Lantern theory, you're basically dismissing criticism of Biden's efforts and letting him or any other president off the hook?
BRENDAN NYHAN I can't say that the term or the theory is always applied in a way I would agree with, and I certainly am not saying that the Biden administration's legislative strategy is perfect. I do question, though, the assumption that people who are the absolute top of national politics don't know how to get votes and are unable to see how easily they could win members of Congress or the public to their side. That seems like a strange preconception to have, and when it's offered by activists with obvious ideological axes to grind, I'm suspicious. I certainly can't rule it out, but the historical record suggests more often these claims are at least unsupported and unproven. Again, it doesn't mean the president shouldn't try, but these constraints are real, and, Brooke let me just add one more thing: when people call for the president to try, they often fail to take into account the costs of trying. Every issue that is prioritized by a president means that other issues don't get prioritized. Every legislative push in Congress means another priority doesn't get attention, so it's not just simply a matter of trying. And if you don't try, you don't care, it's a matter of prioritizing among many issues and policies that a president cares about. In some cases, the people at the top, they're making a calculation about where to allocate their effort and attention. And rather than throw a Hail Mary on some issue where the chances of success are slim, they'd rather focus our attention where they think they have a better chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhm. You believe that it's still early days for the Green Lantern theory under Biden and that [SIGHS] we'll be hearing this narrative over and over again in the news in the coming weeks and months?
BRENDAN NYHAN Very much. We should put a marker down, now. The president just achieved a major policy success, maybe one of the most important pieces of social policy legislation in recent decades, but this was the low hanging fruit, the legislation where the political opportunity was greatest. From here on out, the president's going to face failure and compromise, failure and compromise the way every president does. And so we're going to hear this story again and again. This very president centric way of thinking about why Congress hasn't taken some particular action. And I just hope going forward, journalists in reporting about these events don't fall victim to these simplistic stories about why Biden failed. I'm sure there will be many failures and many mistakes, but it's not simply a matter of failing to try hard enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you talking about the filibuster?
BRENDAN NYHAN Some people see the Democrats failure to get rid of the filibuster as itself reflecting a lack of will. But there again, the Democrats need 50 votes and if they don't have the votes, they can't do it. So how do you get Joe Manchin and his colleagues to all vote to get rid of the filibuster? That's the question facing Democrats right now. Joe Biden may have the will to get rid of the filibuster, but unless he has the votes, it doesn't matter. It's not clear that he has the leverage to get rid of it as easily as people have suggested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, but to conclude this argument over willpower, intent, sincerity and how to read their lack in Biden's failures to pass things – in other words, the Green Lantern theory, we're going to see that hanging around for a while.
BRENDAN NYHAN The belief that the president could get what the activists want, if only they tried hard enough, I'm convinced is an evergreen. This idea will never go away. We have a kind of heroic, all powerful conception of the president, and as the president has accumulated more powers in other domains and becomes such an important figure in popular culture and news coverage, the tendency to view politics through this prism has only become stronger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think we would have been better off without the West Wing?
BRENDAN NYHAN There's a cohort of liberals of a certain age who very much have an understanding of the presidency and its powers. That seems to have an Aaron Sorkin inflected tone, and I have many friends and family members who love that show, but I don't think that's the best way to understand American politics, and you would not do well in my in my class on the presidency if you were writing from Sorkin scripts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan, thank you very much.
BRENDAN NYHAN Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brendan Nyhan is a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, what you can learn from a Shakespeare production that asks you to listen even harder to what you may not understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone, New York's Public Theater and our producing station, WNYC is doing Romeo and Juliet on the radio. And this production aims both to entertain and to show that language need not divide us
CHORUS Dos familias, both alike in dignity, en Verona escenario gentil [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE all of the characters shift seamlessly from Spanish to English and back again. You don't have to understand every word to get the message.
CHORUS From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It stars Juan Castano and Lupita Nyong'o and was co-adapted and entirely directed by Saheem Ali
CHORUS From forth, the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. Whose misadventured piteous overthrows, Doth with their death, bury their parents' strife. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some of us will take in the unfamiliar words, like pure emotion, but we'll all be traveling together,
CHORUS Su pasión impetuosa y cruel destino, con la furia obstinada de sus padres, que sólo se extinguió al morir los hijos, nuestra escena, en dos horas, va a contarles. The which, if you with patient ears attend, nuestras faltas sabremos componer. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Poetry is a special kind of music, and it was a musical that first brought Ali to Shakespeare.
SAHEEM ALI So when I was in Kenya, I was obsessed with this musical Grease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhm
SAHEEM ALI I was 16.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I've heard of it. [LAUGHS].
SAHEEM ALI So I got my friends in high school together with a group of girls from another high school, and we put up a production of Grease that I had kind of cobbled together from my memory of seeing the production. Someone saw me in that and sent me a letter and said - Would you like to play Mercutio in this production of Romeo and Juliet?
SAHEEM ALI And I had no idea what that was or who that was or anything. That was my introduction to Shakespeare as being cast as Mercutio in Shakespeare when I was 16 – in Nairobi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm so glad you were cast as Mercutio because I was going to bring him up in just a moment. What you've done here, I have never seen before. A truly bilingual production. What was your intention?
SAHEEM ALI Yeah, one of my missions with Shakespeare is to increase the sense of accessibility and the audiences would feel invited to the productions. So typically, in the traditional theater, that means casting actors of color at the center of productions so that folks who haven't seen themselves reflected in these worlds can see themselves and have these stories feel like they're relevant to them. A few years ago, I did a production of Twelfth Night, my concept was that Viola and Sebastian, were immigrants from Cuba coming to the US and they landed off the coast of Florida in South Beach, and so I incorporated the language into that, working with Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, who also co-adapted Romeo Julietta with me. You know, I'm bilingual, and so when I speak to my family back in Kenya, we just very automatically switch to Swahili. And so I wanted to tell the story of these siblings who, when they saw each other for the first time, reverted back to their mother tongue, which is Spanish. And if you don't understand Spanish, you didn't need to know what they were saying. It was this beautiful private moment, but you understood the emotion behind it. Shakespeare is like that. Sometimes it feels like foreign language as it is. You know, there's the process of translation that comes along with Shakespeare that I just wanted to take to the next level by bringing Spanish into it. There were forty 41 million people who speak Spanish in the US. That's their first language, a huge swath of our population. And I want to create something for them as well and say there's also something beautiful for you in Shakespeare. You may not have English as your first language, but here is a production of the greatest love story of all time, and there's going to be parts of this that are just for you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I understand that you started preparing the script off of the Spanish translation by Alfredo Michel Modenessi.
SAHEEM ALI Yeah, so for it to work bilingually, I had to find a translation of the play that hewed pretty close to Shakespeare's original rhythms. There are others like the Neruda, for example. Neruda has his Romeo y Julietta and it's very much an adaptation. It is not a translation. He takes liberties with the text. That's beautiful, but it wouldn't work for a bilingual production because I needed the integration of both languages to feel seamless. And so that really was how I found and chose Alfredo's translation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you tell me a little bit about Alfredo Michel Modenessi?
SAHEEM ALI He is a Mexican scholar at the University of Mexico who teaches linguistics, and he was introduced to me by Ayanna Thompson, who is the Shakespeare scholar in residence at The Public, she says, you have to be my friend Alfredo. And so we had a Zoom call with me, Ayana and Alfredo, and then he sent me his text. And the thing about Alfredo's translation that is so perfect for creating a bilingual adaptation is that his words hew very close to Shakespeare's rhythms, his imageries, the meter of the text.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I regret to say I don't know Spanish, but I do know a little bit about Shakespeare from when I was studying it in acting school. I know how much the emotional intention of the character hinges on the meter and how when that meter breaks, it conveys disordered thinking or passion. Did you find this as someone who has directed Shakespeare before, that it didn't pose a huge challenge? Most of the time.
SAHEEM ALI No, it didn't. Alfredo's translation really takes all of those rhythms into account reflected in his text. The blueprint that Ricardo Pérez González and I created was one that made sense to us. It was very subjective. You know, we really started from a place of like, OK, the meatiest scenes – those need to be in Spanish. The moments of real passion parent is because that's all that's our story, as people who are bilingual, you know. Those moments where your mother is really upset with you, she switches to your mother tongue. She doesn't do it in English. For me, she did it in Swahili, but that is the truth of someone who is bilingual. And the next step was to work with the actors, so we said, OK, here is a text that we have created. Now, we wanted the actors to give us their input, because every actor had a different relationship to Spanish. Some were born outside of this country. Some were born here and learned Spanish after the fact. Some are not LatinX at all, and they all have a different identity, like Lupita who was born in Mexico but grew up in Kenya, and so Spanish was her third language. The final step of adaptation was for the actors to say, well, this feels more comfortable to me, and I would maybe say this word in Spanish or this word in English. They were partners in that because it had to be true to what their own history of Spanish was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you suggest a snippet we could play to give our listeners a sense of that?
SAHEEM ALI Yeah, I think the balcony, because you get a sense of like how languages work back and forth there, and what you have is also the final design, right? You can hear the footsteps and the Foley and everything. Yeah.
ROMEO Ay, es mi dueña, es mi amor, Ah, si lo supiera! She speaks, yet she says nothing. What of that? Her eye discourses, I will answer it. ¡Pero qué atrevido! Tis not to me she speaks. Un par de las estrellas…
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that your introduction to Shakespeare back in Kenya was being cast as Mercutio, and it's funny because when you sent me the script, I turned immediately to his Queen Mab speech, which is hard enough to follow in Shakespeare. It's about this malevolent spirit who tempts men into depravity by dangling what they most desire. It's a series of phantasmagoric images. Lovers dream of love, lawyer's dream of lawsuits and making money. Soldiers dream of cutting.
SAHEEM ALI Foreign throats. Mhm
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I notice that half of the image would be in one language and the other half of it in the other. Like the word Wagoner would be in English and the description in Spanish and vice versa.
MERCUTIO And in this state she gallops night by night, through lovers' brains, que sueñan con amor; rodillas de cortesanos, that dream on curtsies straight; dedos de abogados, who straight dream on fees; labios de damitas, who straight on kisses dream, labios que Mab, furiosa, cubre de llagas porque su aliento apesta a golosinas [END CLIP]
SAHEEM ALI Mmhmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was that like crazy fun or just crazy?
SAHEEM ALI It was crazy fun. [BROOKE LAUGHS] That's the kind of work that really gets me going because it really depends on what the word is and how it sounds and then hearing Irene Sofia Lucio, the actor who plays Mercutio, hearing her speak the words, and she's someone who had such great fun with the language because classically trained very, very much steeped in how to work with this kind of text. And she was born speaking Spanish. And so she brought such a facility and a dexterity with the language. It became so much fun to create this for her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Were there any speeches that were particularly hard to, you know, bilingual-ize?
SAHEEM ALI I would say the scene that was really pleasantly challenging was the scene where Capulet finds out that Juliet does not want to marry Paris and berates her where we cut Lord Capulet. So, Julieta has only one parent, and it's her mother. We had to combine the text that the mother says when she first enters into the Juliet and that the father says when he comes in and finds out. Creating that amalgamation, we had to find the right tone, the right arc, because you're taking two characters who appear in one scene and respond to information about their daughter in one.
CAPULET An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend, si no, cuélgate, mendiga, pasa hambre, muérete en la calle; For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee, Nor what is mine shall never do thee good. [END CLIP]
SAHEEM ALI Florencia Lozano is the actor there and we went back and forth about which lines were in English and which lines were in Spanish because the scene has such emotional intensity. You know, we wanted to make it all in Spanish, but then it lost truly feeling bilingual. Because one of the things that I'm thinking about, I'm making this for a bilingual audience, but I would also like an audience that's English only to be able to follow, and an audience in Spanish only to be able to follow. So the Venn diagram of where that intersects, in that scene in particular, was particularly challenging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I completely got that. And I was also wondering, looking at the script, whether in some cases you chose lines because the Spanish actually sounded a lot less English –
SAHEEM ALI – Yes, for sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE – It had the same roots.
SAHEEM ALI Absolutely. That was definitely a consideration because I love being in spaces where I don't speak the language and I try to decipher what's being spoken. So one of my exes was Japanese, his family didn't speak any English, so I would love being at like family dinners with them and try and pick up the context of what was being discussed. And if I could pick up like one word there that sounded the same in English and, you know, this puzzle in my brain of like understanding what was happening, I find that really enjoyable. So with this piece, whenever there was a word in Spanish, it sounded like the English, I'll be like, OK, we can do the Spanish here for sure. Because there's enough there for someone who speaks English should be able to understand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm. I know what you mean about struggling. I reported from Russia for a while and especially the first year, the Russian translator said that I had this expression "like a dog that you were talking to" listening so closely, head tilted like - I'm going to understand this! So, I really know how that feels. But let's talk about the choice of Romeo and Juliet itself. We all know the origins of West Side Story, and most of us know that there was a Spanish language version of West Side Story on Broadway, and I think it's being made for the movies. Is there something in particular about this tale that has resonance in Spanish?
SAHEEM ALI Well, it's very subjective, Brooke. For me, Spanish is very much the language of my first loves. The first the first people that I fell in love with when it came to this country and came out as a gay man were LatinX. I fell in love with these people and I also fell in love with their language and their culture and their food and their music, and so I took trips, for love often, because I fall in love with someone and they lived there, and so I went to spend some time in that country and South America and Central America, but then I also loved to go to where I didn't know anyone and just go for two weeks or three weeks or a month sometimes and just like immerse myself. For me, the sound of Spanish, the mood of Spanish, it's– para mí es la lengua de amor. It's something that feels like love when I hear it. And then Lupita Nyong'o and I met doing Romeo and Juliet. She played Juliet actually in that production that I played Mercutio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What? Like, how long ago was that?
SAHEEM ALI This was in 1998. Yes, I was 18, she was 14. Cast as a 14-year-old Juliet. We met there, we became friends, and we reconnected in the US. Around the time we were both in graduate school. I was at Columbia; she was at Yale. We've been dreaming up coming back to this production. And so, when it came to thinking about, well, what I wanted to do next on the radio, I thought, well, I really want to go back to Romeo and Juliet. I want to do it with Lupita. I'd love to do it bilingual, and she does speak Spanish. So all the pieces came together to make something that I could feel like was further exploration of Shakespeare on radio. It's Romeo and Juliet, it's the Shakespeare that everyone knows the best. So, with Romeo and Juliet, even the moments when either language might feel a little bit out of reach, you know, this is about two people who want to be together. This is a story about what happens when two sides don't reconcile, when two sides allow their hate and their enmity to blind them to everything. And you have these two people caught in the middle of it and you know who you're always rooting for. You always say, no, don't do it, don't take the potion, don't take out the knife, because you want these two people to survive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was just thinking about if you had fallen in love with, say, an Eskimo would this, would this be in Yupik right now?
SAHEEM ALI I wonder! It just might have been. Yeah, my first love was a man from Ecuador, and so yeah! Something to say for first love.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Saheem, thank you so much.
SAHEEM ALI Oh, thank you, Brooke, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Saheem Ali is the director of Romeo y Julieta, a world premiere bilingual audio play co-produced by the Public Theater and WNYC Studios, which also produces us. You can find it at WNYCStudios.org/podcasts/Romeo-y-Julieta or really wherever you get your podcasts.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show, On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited...By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adrienne Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone...
BOB GARFIELD ...and I’m Bob Garfield.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.