Romeo and Juliet
Directed by: José A. Esquea
Teatro LaTea and Soñadores Productions (New York, NY) - 2009
Romeo and Juliet (2009)
by José Esquea
In 2009, José A. Esquea directed a Romeo and Juliet for Teatro LaTea that was set on the Lower East Side with the Montagues as Chinese and the Capulets as Latinx.
All production photo credits are the work of Anthony Ruiz.
The duel on the streets of the Lower East Side between Tybalt (Howard Collado dressed in black) and Mercutio (Jesus E. Martinez dressed in B-boy gear)
In background: Benvolio (Adelina Amosco) and Romeo (Chester Poon).
As a director and producer, one of my principal goals was to allow for the possibility of the most diverse and enriching cast to positively augment the story. We drew inspiration from the New York friend crews of the '80s and ‘90s—where a small group of kids that usually grew up on the same block became very tight friends. After analyzing all the teasings in the text between Benvolio and Mercutio, we decided that if we made Benvolio a woman, and the secret girlfriend of Mercutio who was carrying his child, then the revenge Romeo would take later would have even greater stakes.
The Announcement of Tybalt's Death
The Nurse (Beneria Abbott), Juliet (Carisa Jocett Toro), and Lady Capulet (Lina Sarello)
I have grown tired of coded language that indicates that people of color should only be presenters or peripheral characters in a classical piece of theatre. These terms like non-traditional casting, re-imagining, or a new conceptual adaption—these designations only serve to fragment the audience and let them know this is the story you will enjoy if you are part of this niche audience. However, in the making of theatre, the only original creative is the writer; everyone else is interpreting, and for that matter, re-imagining the world the playwright created.
My family, like most families in the Americas, particularly those hailing from the Caribbean, is mixed and intermixed. It was very important to me that Juliet's family would be a similar picture to the women in my family and so here the Nurse, Juliet, and Lady Capulet are not only captivating and beautiful women, but they are just about every size and skin color of the women in my family. It is their connection to each other, their humanity, that draws you to them. We worked really hard to remove the perception in our production that characters presented by human women were not passive in their destinies.
Cheer up Romeo and Let's Break into The Capulets Party
Mercutio: Jesus E. Martinez (in the white B-Boy outfit), Romeo: Chester Poon (in the Black B-Boy outfit)
Seated from left to right Alexander Lee and Gary O. Maxwell
Sitting on the sidewalk the rank and file of their break dance crew we called them "The Kings Men" after Shakespeare’s acting troupe. To give actors access to our productions, we were always divided into thirds: one-third were Equity Union Actors, one-third were recent MFA and BFA graduates, and one-third were completely novice actors looking to gain experience.
My goal was to take the original setting of West Side Story on the Lower East Side and bring the tension of the Other to the present day. At the time of the production, the present inhabitants of the neighborhood included Latinos/Hispanic/Latinx/Criollos/Latines, Asians, African Americans, and Russian Jews. The idea of friendship is grounded in a common experience and or a common language, English; it is the reason why all these first-generation kids can be friends.
The Iconic Balcony Scene.
Left to right Romeo: Chester Poon and Juliet: Carissa Jocette Toro
This scene, and the entire play for that matter, was maximized by us using just about every section of the theater so that we could immerse our audience in the story. We wanted this scene to feel like a proverbial fire escape; it was staged in the audience risers and the simple yet evocative lighting design by Alex Moore created the feeling that we were all intimately involved in this very private moment in the life of these two-star crossed lovers. The way it was captured by photographer Anthony Ruiz makes it one of my most treasured possessions.
The two songs that defined Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other were “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz (Romeo’s song) and “Please Help Me I’m Falling (In Love With You)” by Puff Johnson, a cover of the 1960 song (first performed by Hank Locklin).
Party at the Capulets: Almost the entire cast is in this photo.
Top row from left to right: Kingsmen: Alexander Lee and Gary O. Maxwell, Narrator: Eric L. Sampson, Romeo: Chester Poon, Benvolio: in this photo played by Adelina Amosco (also played by Sarah Evans)
Middle Row Actors: Tybalt: Howard Collado, Tybalt's boys: Frank Cepeda, although you can only see his shoulders Rao Rampilla, Lady Montague: Tiffany Rothman (We also switched the Gender in this role), Escalus: A. B. Lugo
Foreground: Juliet: Carissa Jocett Toro, Lady Capulet: Lina Sarello, and Nurse: Beneria Abbott
I wanted to present an urban version, and more specifically a New York version, of this story. I borrowed heavily from West Side Story, however, as someone from within the Criolla Culture, there where choices that I made that felt more reflective of my environment than the interpreters of West Side Story, as they re-imagined a portrayal of us from the outside in. The 1961 film version of West Side Story counted among its Creole/Latinx/Native cast only three actors from our culture: Rita Moreno (Anita), Jose De Vega (Chino), and Rey Del Campo (Del Campo). As an homage, our Juliet wore a purple dress, as did Anita in the Mambo number in the film.
The festivity was much like in the original, and in our culture, because it is a coming out for Juliet, and she is the focus of attention at the party. It is also a multi-generational event. The celebration of the autonomy our bodies, our movement, is shown through dance. It is multigenerational; you learn to dance with and from your elders. Romeo is totally and completely captivated by the energy of the beautiful dancer in the room and is compelled to have to dance with her. It was important to me that Juliet was celebrated and not a wallflower, and that it was clear that her sense of what being a woman was comes from her two primary caretakers, her mother, and the Nurse. Choreographer Lina Sarello was tasked with creating a Mambo/NY work salsa number using the music of La Típica 73 that reflected all of this shared energy.
The Kingsmen Take the Room
In the background, from left to right: Tybalt's Boy: Frank Cepeda, Tybalt: Howard Collado,
On the platform Narrator: Eric L. Sampson, Member of the Capulet home: Rao Rampilla, and Nurse Beneris Abbott
Dancing Kingsmen in the background: Left to right, Gary O Maxwell, and Alexander Lee
Dancing in the foreground: Romeo: Chester Poon and Mercutio: Jesus E. Martinez
Understanding a multigenerational drama, immigrant families, and New York culture were all very important to this production. Juliet was raised as a strong young woman around strong men, and she would not fall for a wallflower. Romeo is broken-hearted because he was a heart breaker with a broken heart. If he wanted to impress Juliet, he and his guys had to bring that street energy, that energy that broke away from the home culture and embraced the culture of the new land. If you are not of the mainstream, that culture pulls it energy from our common fairway—like hip hop, and its essence is its the battle.
Ironically, it was important that this perceived male street bravado be choreographed by women. The Choreographers: Deena "Snapshot" Clemente and Wanda "Wandeepop" Candelario are Bronx hip hop royalty: they are original hip hop dancers and choreographers from the first hip hop danciscal on Broadway, Jam on the Groove.
Flyer (back side)
The back of the flyer reflects the time of paper throw aways, before today’s digital sphere. When you are an independent producer, you have to squeeze all your information in what little real estate you have. In this case, it was a 4x6 card.
Flyer (front side)
The front of the flyer is yet another homage. Designer Will Sierra and I went through a couple of ideas but the most effective was simple: it was these two young people pledging themselves to each other, as was done for the production of maestro René Buch at Repertorio Español in 1979. I was competitive with el Maestro René because he was among—and certainly in my eyes—the best at the art of classical storytelling. It was also a full circle moment for Mateo Gomez who starred in the 1979 production as Romeo and in our production over thirty years later played Lord Capulet. As a young director at the time, I wanted to compete with everyone that had touched the material. It was also an honor to pay my respects to René Buch in this way.
Image by visual artist Francisco Antonio Esquea Rodriguez
We projected this image at the end of the production. In terms of the story and nuestra cultura it is relevant and important because the production was meant to be the community tribute to the young and the fallen. Murals go up in our barrios by local artists when young people meet their untimely end, and they become a place of bereavement for the community.
Costume Design: Dale Sudakoff Volpe
Lighting Design: Alex Moore
Set Design: Yanko Bakulic
Makeup: Jane Rose
Fight Coordinator: Jesus E. Martinez
Assistant Director: Dara Marsh
Teatro Latea was founded by: Nelson Tamayo (Ecuadorian Indigena), Mateo Gomez (Dominican), Nelson Landrieu (Uruguay), Anthony Ruiz (Nuyorican), Blanca Camacho (Puerto Rican), and Bill Blechinberg (Venezuelan, and the youngest member of the group). They were all company members of Repertorio Español who were eager to spread their wings and to do more experimental farcical theatre and to do Theatre of the Oppressed.
Their exodus from Repertorio was led by Tamayo who had grown tired of being marginalized in the classical roles he would play at Repertorio because of his more Indigena appearance. They worked with Marta Garcia, a dancer and political activist, who is Puerto Rican, to found El Rincon Taino, a café in New York that became a cultural hub for new work.
Tamayo and Mateo would eventually make their way to then abandoned school building now known as the Clemente (The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center) to produce new work in the arts, bringing the group along to 107 Suffolk Street where the building had been squaded by a group that taught English as a Second Language.
Esquea directed a diverse cast for Hamlet (2006), Othello (2007), Macbeth (2008), and Romeo and Juliet (2009). In 2010, he produced King Lear, directed by Dara Marsh.