The Language of Flowers
By: Edit Villarreal
Music by: Germaine Franco
Directed by: José Cruz González
South Coast Repertory Theatre (San Diego, CA) - 1991
The Language of Flowers (1991)
Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers (originally called R and J), premiered as a staged reading at South Coast Repertory Theatre (dir. José Cruz González) in 1991; it had been developed as part of the Hispanic Playwrights Project. It had its first equity performance at A Contemporary Theatre (dir. Norma Saldivar) in 1995.
This Romeo and Juliet adaptation takes place in a contemporary Los Angeles with Romeo Martinez as an undocumented Latino and Juliet Bosquet a wealthy third-generation Chicana who does not speak Spanish. Focusing on social and economic mobility, Villarreal commented, “’The class thing is more interesting,’ said Villarreal, ‘it's more contemporary and biting.’” The storyline is mostly in line with Shakespeare’s, and Villarreal changes the Apothecary to a curandero who only speaks Spanish and the Chorus to a Corridista who sings about Central Americans fleeing from war.
The division between the lovers is not based on ethnicity but assimilation. Romeo’s mom is named Candelaria; they both crossed the border ten years ago and are undocumented. Romeo references Mexican traditions, Aztec spirituality, uses Nahuatl words, and doesn’t understand idiomatic expressions in English. Unlike Shakespeare’s play in which Romeo begins to speak differently after interacting with Juliet, here Juliet pronounces and attempts to learn some words in Spanish after meeting Romeo. By contrast, Juliet’s father, Julian, is a Republican, and he “enters impeccably dressed in Ivy League khaki and blue blazer.” Although Julian knows he is stunted in his career due to racism, his desire for assimilation manifested in colorism and accentism toward Juliet’s mother. Juliet says of her mother, “She had an accent, I think. And she was pretty but not light enough. She was too dark I think, not right for Dad’s bank career. So he divorced her.”
Juliet bumps into a calavera before she fakes her death, “It was my fault. I didn’t see you –” right before she chews the leaves (takes the poison). Similar to Shakespeare’s play, Julian really believes that Juliet is dead, but here he assumes that Romeo did it because he is the one who killed Tommy. He sends Manuel with a message to Tijuana where Romeo is hiding to “Tell him her death is a lie, made up to give him time to come and get her and then return to Mexico.” When Romeo crosses the border and returns to L.A., he sees four calaveras; he knows his death is imminent, and ultimately he is killed by gunshot on the streets of LA. Juliet stabs herself with the knife she got from a calavera.
Set during the Day of the Dead festivities, “the dead are preparing to receive Romeo and Juliet,” and the play continues past the deaths of the titular characters, “tapping into the Aztec culture of Mictlan and the land of the dead where they will be received.” Calaveras appear throughout, sometimes alone, sometimes with other calaveras, and they interact with the characters. The servant, Manuel (Peter) is a calavera, though nobody sees him that way. Tommy (Tybalt) kills Benny (Benvolio/Balthazar), Romeo says, “But his soul, man, his soul is flying, all around us. See it? It’s right over there. . . Nobody goes to the thirteen heavens alone. One of us has go with him.” After Romeo dies, “Mesoamerican music rises.”
Tommy and Benny become calaveras after they die and they fight with each other even after death, multiple times in the play. The play ends with calaveras, including the four characters who died now as calaveras; they sing in English then the same verse in Spanish at play’s end. Villarreal wanted to create a show to engage young people, and consequently all those who dressed up as calaveras (skeletons) got free admission to the show when it was performed at Cal State Los Angeles.
Villarreal’s play has been adapted and performed by and for student groups on various tours, and this popular Latinx play was featured in Jorge Huerta’s influential book on Latinx theatre, Chicano Drama: Performance, Society and Myth (Cambridge UP, 2000).
The Language of Flowers by Edit Villarreal at A Contemporary Theatre (1995)
Romeo and Juliet (Dawnie Mercado and Benito Martinez), and the corradista (Meg Savlov) ACT (San Francisco, CA) - 1995 Photograph by: Chris Bennion
Courtesy of: Carla Della Gatta
The Language of Flowers by Edit Villarreal, Draft 6 (Aug 1995)
Courtesy of: Edit Villarreal
R and J / The Language of Flowers by Edit Villarreal;
Courtesy of: Jorge Huerta papers, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
Juan Gómez-Quiñones, “Outside Inside – The Immigrant Workers: Creating Popular Myths, Cultural Expression, and Personal Politics in Borderlands Southern California,” Cultural Renaissance: Contemporary Cultural Trends, eds. David R. Maciel, Isidro D. Ortiz, and María Herrera-Sobek, Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2000. 49-92. 63-65.
José Cruz González and David Lozano, “Diálogo: On Making Shakespeare Relevant to Latinx Communities,” in Shakespeare and Latinidad, eds. Trevor Boffone and Carla Della Gatta, Edinburgh UP, 2021, 154-59.
José Cruz González and David Lozano, “Shakespeare in Latinx Communities, with José Cruz González and David Lozano, “Shakespeare Unlimited” podcast, Folger Shakespeare Library, Folger.edu. 2021.
Jorge Huerta, Chicano Drama: Performance, Society and Myth, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Susan Mason, “Romeo and Juliet in East L.A.,” Theater, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1992. 88-92.
CARLA DELLA GATTA
 Mark Pinsky, “Una Noche to Remember: Hispanic Playwrights Project Takes Center Stage at SCR Beginning Tonight,” Los Angeles Times, 8 August 1991.
 Villarreal wonderfully makes accent directions clearly visible in her script. When Spanish pronunciation is required, the word is underlined. Some words (and names) are pronounced in both languages, but the accent is denoted in the script. And LA is written as “El Lay,” giving actors, directors, and vocal coaches a great deal of information for staging.
 Edit Villarreal, “The Language of Flowers,” Draft 6, Unpublished script, August 1995.
 Villarreal, 38.
 Villarreal, 83.
 Father Lawrence has illegal plants smuggled in.
 Villarreal, 91.
 José Cruz González, “Shakespeare in Latinx Communities, with José Cruz González and David Lozano, “Shakespeare Unlimited” podcast, Folger Shakespeare Library, Folger.edu. 2021.
 José Cruz González, “Shakespeare in Latinx Communities"
 Villarreal, 59.
 Villarreal, 104.