For a lot of people, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet might be the paragon of indecipherable literature from a time that we can’t remember, or much less care about. But what happens when you revamp Romeo to be a badass woman with a lasso, set the two on the Wild Western frontier, and pack it with just as much emotion as there is action? What you get is Romeo y Juliet, an exciting bilingual reimagining of Shakespeare’s timeless classic that refutes all dirt upon the play’s name.
Adapted by Karen Zacarías and directed by KJ Sanchez at the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), the play takes place in Alta California, during the time of Spanish colonialism. It grapples with themes of love, youth, and disillusionment, asking the question: What happens when the adults don’t show up for the young people?
I had the privilege of engaging in an animated conversation with director KJ Sanchez about the message of the play and its relevance to today’s youth. We discussed the genesis of her love for Shakespeare during her own youth, and how her identity and personhood shape her role as a director.
Esha Potharaju: Out of such a wide array of plays that you’re free to direct, what made you choose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?
KJ Sanchez: I have been in love with this play for 30 years. I actually played Juliet back in 1994, when I was very young. And I’ve just really loved it. So when Cal Shakes was talking to me about plays that I was interested in, I had mentioned I was interested in Romeo and Juliet, and that Karen Zacarías had begun writing this adaptation of it. Eric Ting, the artistic director of Cal Shakes, found out about it, so he connected the two of us. Knowing that I was always interested in this play, and knowing that Karen wrote this piece, he put us together.
Why did you choose to direct this specific adaptation of Romeo and Juliet? What was it that interested you about Zacarías’s adaptation of this play?
It was the idea of marrying two languages, Spanish and English, and particularly here in this area because Northern California, in so many ways, is a bilingual culture. And I, being a Latina myself, I felt like it was a really great way to access a language that when I was young, I felt like it was distant from me—that I felt like I was an outsider to Shakespeare’s language—until I had a mentor who taught me how to read and speak and understand Shakespeare, and I fell in love with it. It just felt good to sort of marry the language of my home and of my family with the language of Shakespeare. It felt like it opened up a whole world for me, and I think it’s going to open up a world for a lot of members of Latinidad to see themselves in these roles and to hear their language married with Shakespeare.
On that note, why do you believe that these creative decisions that the adaptation made—like setting the play in Alta California, during Spanish colonial rule—are important?
Actually, setting the play in Alta California, was my decision that I offered to Karen the playwright, which she agreed to and baked it into the play. I put it in Alta California, because it was a time where there was a lot of violence. The Spanish fought the Indigenous people and First Nation people to take their land, and then Mexico fought Spain to kick them out, and then the U.S. fought Mexico and invaded. And so there were battles after battles. It was a time when people were really quick to violence. And also, it’s the Old West, it’s the Wild West, it’s the Gold Rush, and that was a really intense time. So I wanted to put the play in a time that would feel like a pressure cooker. Like everybody’s under so much stress, and that explains why everybody’s so quick to violence. And then making Romeo a woman—I would imagine how hard it would have been at times to be a woman who’s in love with another woman. And so that just puts more pressure on Romeo and Juliet, and it helped me understand how high the stakes are for both of them.
I love how you chose to place emphasis on pressure in this play. How do you interpret the original play of Romeo and Juliet?
It’s a play about so many things. But I think the main thing for me is that the adults all fail the young people in the play. Even those that are well-intending, like Friar Lawrence. Every adult does a disservice to the children, to young people. And the young people are just trying to be their authentic selves. And they have no options because nobody is intervening to help these kids. And that’s a major thing that attracts me. I think it’s still so true today. It’s like, where did kids go when all the adults in their life failed them?
One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words…And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found.KJ Sanchez
That’s beautiful. I didn’t expect this play to grapple with that sort of thing, to delve into that feeling of just being lost as a kid. I’ve never really heard that interpretation before, but that puts it into so much more context. That just makes me want to ask: Do you believe that a Shakespearean play can still endure amongst teenagers and children?
I do. I hope so. I’m a huge fan of rap music. One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words. So it takes me a couple of times to listen to it, to get all of the nuances. But when I listen to a track for the very first time, I just sort of relax and don’t worry about understanding every single word yet. I just get the gist of it. And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found. Just let your mind bounce off of the wordplay and take away what you will from it. It doesn’t have to be a task. It doesn’t have to be anything hard. It can be actually just a pleasurable, visceral experience.
How does this adaptation carry on that theme of feeling lost as a young person from the original?
Because Romeo is a woman in our version, she has nobody to turn to for help, because she’s such an outsider. So I think it’s going to be really clear. And in the staging, you can see the friendship of these young people and how they really hang on to each other. And then the adults, like Capulet, Juliet’s father: once Juliet says, “I’m not going to marry Paris,” he is rough with her. He’s really stern. And he switches into Spanish. And what he says in Spanish is really visceral and intense. I think that you will recognize those kinds of parents who are like, “Do as I say, no matter what, and if you don’t do what I say you’re out on the street, and you’re not my daughter anymore.” We’re really leaning into those themes in the play.
I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, ‘Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?’ And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy.KJ Sanchez
I love that a lot. KJ, the motto of your company, American Records, is, “to create theater that chronicles our time and serves as a bridge between people.” How do you think your direction of this play reflects this motto?
Oh, my gosh, thank you for doing your research! I’m so honored that you read about that. I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, “Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?” And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy. And so, how it chronicles our time is that we’re in a moment of crisis, where I think that there are too many adults that are not actually paying attention to what young people are going through right now. I mean, I’m so sorry on behalf of all of the older people; I’m so sorry to you who’s young that what you hear from us is, “Our planet is a mess. Our society is a mess. When are we going to learn our lessons when it comes to social justice?” And then we’re like, “Good luck with that! See you later.” We need to own up to the mistakes we made, and we need to be better.
I know that the play was originally scheduled for 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic. What feels different between these two productions?
I think the balance of Spanish and English is more nuanced. I think that I had more time to do research on Alta California. I think the play is just more well-baked than it was the first time. I think when we would have put it up originally, it would have been strong, but I think that the pandemic just gave it much more time to simmer. It was just really nice to think about the play and think about what language means to me when we were having conversations. It just raises the stakes for everything for me.
What feels the same between the two productions?
That the play is one of the best plays ever written. That the idea of marrying Spanish and English is a really good idea. That Juliet is one of the strongest characters in the canon of theater. And the idea that some themes last forever.
How do you as a director put your imagination into a play that’s already been written, but also avoid overriding the instructions that have been intended by the original playwright?
It’s a delicate balance, and it really is just trial and error. I think in order to be a director, you have to have a pretty decent, positive relationship with failure. It’s almost like walking around a house in the dark. You don’t know where the coffee table is until you bump into it. I don’t know what is right or wrong until we bump into things and learn in the room.
What were some unique artistic decisions that you took with the play, like with costume design or set building?
One fun one is Romeo. There were a lot of really strong women at the time that for many reasons were running their own ranches in Alta California. Maybe because the men were off fighting, or maybe the men got abducted and were taken as hostages. There were all sorts of reasons why women were running ranches. And so our Romeo is a cowgirl. She’s just been out herding cattle and she has a lasso. She has a whip and she’s wearing chaps and she’s kind of a badass. It’s really fun.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an avid lover of the arts and a high school junior based in California’s Bay Area. She is a firm believer in the importance of diversity in the arts, because the arts shape culture, and culture shapes policy. She strongly believes that education is liberation and interns with CreateCA, working with teachers and students on a local level to raise funding and community support for arts education in her district. She is a journalist on the editorial staff of the TeenTix Press Corps, helping support youth to pursue opportunities in art criticism. In her free time, you can find Esha enthusiastically scribbling something into a sketchbook or over-analyzing comics and cartoons with her best friends.
This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit.