BLOG # 2
February 20, 2023
Latinas and Shakespeare in the 1970s
When Bolivian-American actress Raquel Welch passed away last week, I immediately thought of how my parents’ generation knew her as a sexy pinup girl and later as a stage and Broadway performer, and a much later generation knew her for a small but iconic role in the 2001 film, Legally Blonde. I am not sure of my first memory of her, but somehow I have always recollected it to be her 1978 appearance on The Muppet Show. All I remembered was that she danced, but when I re-watched parts of the episode last year while researching Latinx in Shakespearean performance, I realized that it began with her backstage, reading Portia’s “The Quality of Mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice.
Welch makes it through just one line of Shakespeare, and then Scooter enters her dressing room to tell her, “Thirty seconds to curtain.” When he hears her speaking Shakespeare (in an elevated, formal voice), he says, “oh, changing your image, huh?” and she says she is considering it. Scooter assures her that she doesn’t have to wear any of “those scanty, revealing costumes,” which garners a laugh from the audience, and then other (male) Muppets appear at her dressing room door to urge her to do so. Welch later wears just such a costume for a dance number that she performs with a Muppet spider while singing. Welch’s performance reminded me of the overall campiness of the show, and it made me think about other Latinas who performed Shakespeare during that time.
The first that came to mind was Irene Cara, another Latina I idolized for her singing and dancing, and who also passed away recently in November 2022. She is best known for the 1980 film, Fame, which was one of the dance movies—and soundtracks—of my youth. But Cara also starred in Aaron Loves Angela, a 1975 film that has a Romeo and Juliet story. In Latinx Shakespeares, I begin my Romeo and Juliet film genealogy with Valley Girl (1983) because of its extraordinary success and influence on movies that followed, although the less mainstream and not well-reviewed Aaron Loves Angela preceded it.
In Aaron Loves Angela, the division is set in Harlem between African American Aaron and Puerto Rican Angela. Cara was of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent and racially Black, and the film incorporates the West Side Story effect, making division not only cultural, but linguistic, incorporating some Spanish in the film. José Feliciano sings the soundtrack that he and his then wife, Janna Maryln Feliciano, composed. The song, “Angela,” continues to garner attention in Spanish and in English. Feliciano’s voice is one I recall from my father’s music collection, and Feliciano’s controversial version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1968 World Series remains one of my favorites, alongside other famous renditions by Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston.
On stage, the 1971 rock musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona (book by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, music by Guare and Galt MacDermot), was developed through the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF, now The Public Theatre) and began on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical in addition to other awards. It was the vehicle that skyrocketed Puerto Rican actor Raúl Julia to fame. Starring opposite Julia was Cuban-American actress Diana Davila. Davila had a stage and television career before and after Two Gentlemen, including a turn as Hermia in the 1967 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. Davila is known for several roles, but to me she is the museum girl in the 1972 film, Play It Again, Sam.
Several years later at the NYSF, Puerto Rican actress Míriam Colón became part of Joe Papp’s 1979 Black and Hispanic Theater Company, as did Morgan Freeman, Earle Hyman, Gloria Foster, and Jaime Sanchez (Chino in the original staging of West Side Story). That year, Sanchez played Marc Antony and Colón played Calpurnia in Julius Caesar. Colón had founded Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT) in 1967, and she appeared in numerous films and television shows in her lengthy career. She had previously played Viola in Noche de Reyes (Twelfth Night) for the University of Puerto Rico's Drama Department in 1949, when she was thirteen years old. She received an Obie for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in 1993 and the National Medal of Arts in 2014 from President Obama.
That same summer of 1979 and also in New York, nineteen-year-old Cuban-American actress, Elizabeth Peña, starred in Romeo y Julieta at Repertorio Español in New York. She would make her film debut that year and continue to star in films until death in 2014 (and some were released posthumously). Peña later played Lady Capulet in the 2008 reading of Romeo y Julieta through Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Peña and Raquel Welch starred together in the 2001 film, Tortilla Soup, which involved a Latinx cast and had King Lear themes. Colón and Peña both starred in the 1996 film Lone Star. With few roles available, these Latina actresses set the stage for a Latina presence in Shakespeare that would take several decades to gain momentum, and is still in the process of gaining momentum.
CARLA DELLA GATTA