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.