There is hope. . .
Two weekends ago, I learned of the exciting ways in which Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, RI is challenging old plays by deciding to diversify their cast. They have cast Julius Caesar as a white woman and Mark Antony as a man of color. My ears perked up when I heard this. I had to do research on the story line, even though when I was a history teacher, I, actually taught this. (Don’t judge me, judge the school system.) As I read the play, envisioning how this change in characters would add so much complexity, the analytical side in me geeked out with excitement. The possibilities of inclusivity and the conversations it might spark made for a feminist dream! Imagine Romeo and Juliet being cast as a gay couple. Does this make the play any less compelling? Does it make it more? Does it change the play?
I had a chance to engage with their creative director, Tyler Dobrowsky, regarding his decision to cast a woman as Caesar. His analysis impressed me and made me excited that Portland, ORE theaters might learn from this.
“We had tossed around the idea of doing Julius Caesar in years past, and then it occurred to us that perhaps having a woman play Caesar might be an interesting lens through which to view Shakespeare’s text. I was also interested in setting the play in a relatively contemporary world, so I thought having a female Caesar may make the play feel a little more relevant..” Associate Creative Director, Tyler Dobrowsky, told me in our interview.
I thought about what he said about the lens. Casting Julius Caesar as woman changes the meaning of the lines, of the murder, of political and military power.
For example, remember the line where Cassius uses the word “womanish” as an insult? Tyler reminded me that, “the character of Cassius. . . is basically the lead conspirator. He makes a few shots that, under Caesar, Rome has become ‘womanish’ and that often Caesar behaves like a ‘sick girl.’ Those are direct lines from Shakespeare, but with a woman playing the title role, they have an added resonance.”
In Caesar, using female associations as insults has a different meaning when a woman plays the role. It’s feels normal to have a man insult a man by calling him a “sick girl,” but when it’s a woman, we think about it more. What does that really mean? What does that insult imply about women? About this female leader? Does she have to act “manish” to lead?
And then there’s the death scene. One of the notorious scenes in all Shakespeare’s work is when the group of senators gangs up on their leader to murder him. They’re uncomfortable with the absolute power, they have an interest in keeping the republican government - whether philosophical or for their own personal power. They surround and stab Caesar to death. From Star Wars to Shakespeare - audiences are accustomed to men killing each other. But change it to a group of men surrounding a woman, and it feels different. Why does it make us uncomfortable? Does is remind us of the all-too-prevalent violence against women, as perpetrated by men? Maybe it highlights how conditioned we are to men murdering each other?
Considering these angles made me realize - you can’t just sub out a white woman for a white man, a black man for a white man, a gay woman for a straight woman, etc, without the meaning changing. People still exist in a cultural context. Seeing a person we don’t expect tells us not just about that person, but we suddenly see their backdrop differently as well. When you sub out, the meaning of the language changes, the significance of the actions is altered. Maybe this excites us or challenges us - it’s a reminder that positions of power, the expectations for us, and the rules we have to play by, change depending on our race, gender, and status in society.
I started out just wanting different perspectives, but what I realized is that inserting a three dimensional female character into a play doesn’t just add a voice or a representation, it adds layers. Last week I heard about trollers who were accusing the new Star Wars film of being anti-white propaganda. Analyzing our media with roles swapped made me realize that these stories become richer, more complicated, more thought-provoking, and more disturbing when we bring diverse voices into them. When it comes down to it, our world is racist and sexist, the stories we watch can confirm, deny, or reflect the complicated nuance of these systems.
Readers: what would change if you changed the gender, race, ethnicity, immigration status, ability, sexual orientation of a character? How would your favorite lines be different? What would the other layer be?
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