'Romeo and Juliet' Broadway: Interracial Romance Will Help Shakespeare Classic

At the end of the summer, New York Theater will welcome Orlando Bloom in his Broadway debut as Romeo in David Leveaux’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, opposite Condola Rashad as Juliet.

The first Broadway production of R&J since 1986, this revival has added a new complication to the Montague/Capulet feud: race. Skeptics may abound regarding this “new” interpretation, but I am hopeful that this particular production will help new audiences connect with this classic, often antiquated, story. And when I say new, I mean those audiences who are less familiar with seeing folks like themselves on stage, especially in classical theater.   

While Director Leveaux has stated that his hopes in casting were “to reflect real life rather than make a comment on race,” I hope that he will remember that theater is inherently political and that this is a wonderful opportunity to explore controversies within race relations.

The worst-case scenario would be indeed if Leveaux ignores the specificity in his casting choices and directs this piece as if it were any other R&J production. The audiences I anticipate the show will garner may very well be more diverse than some Shakespeare crowds (a topic I will return to) and so where better a space not only to expose the 21st century to Shakespeare outside of a stuffy ninth grade English classroom, justify the reason for the Capulet/Montague feud outside of the context of Elizabethan social structure, and say something interesting about today’s climate for interracial relationships?

For the record, R&J has been re-envisioned to center around ethnic tensions before, most famously in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. (And, I can’t resist, in this potpourri of cinematic ways.) But adaptations that are grounded in an accessible change of interpretation are few and far between. Leveaux says that he doesn’t want to make a comment on race, but I think it would be irresponsible not to try. Otherwise I’ll start to fear it’s all a box office ploy.

Returning to my earlier conjecture regarding audiences: there has been a recent “trend” — if you want to call it that — in “alternative” casting in theater and film, including the 2008 all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the announcement of young actress Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie in the new film about that little redheaded orphan who sings about tomorrow.

Maybe the purpose is to bring new audiences to an old classic, in the way that presumably 2008’s Cat brought in different demographics from the usual Tennessee Williams crowd (although I for one would go see James Earl Jones in anything, let’s be real). On a related note, I am very excited for Classical Theatre of Harlem’s upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as directed by Justin Emeka.

That said, if you were worried that casting actors with more melanin as the Capulets was merely a producer’s ruse for a bump in ticket sales, may I remind you who is playing Romeo? Once again it comes back to what I discussed in Are Celebrities Ruining Broadway?

Honestly, if there were going to be something that made this production fall flat it won’t be the skin color of the cast; if you ask me, it’ll be the decision to cast a 37-year-old man, however much of a heartthrob he is or has been, in the role of a 16-year-old. So has Orlando Bloom been cast because he is the best possible Romeo or because he will bring in the largest audiences? The same could be said about Condola Rashad, if the purpose of this interracial casting was merely a box office scheme. 

It is probably too reductive to say that we'll be able to tell once we see the audience (also, somewhat racist) which casting choice "worked" better to draw in viewers. But I am hopeful that, if we do get to see folks beyond the average 44-year-old Caucasian female tourist in the box office line, they will see a version of this classic story worth being told. There is only so much novelty in seeing faces like yours where they haven't been if then you don't have any reason to connect to the characters stories. Shakespeare's script has room for nuance; it is now up to Leveaux to direct it accordingly.

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Rachel Graf Evans

Oscillating between Renaissance Woman and Hydra. rachelgrafevans.com

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