A new, interracial production of Romeo and Juliet arrives on Broadway this September, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad.* Director David Leveaux decided to cast the lovers’ families in alignment with their races, resulting in a much more diverse production. So why am I not cheering?
Because, despite the fact that its latest staging features a 36-year-old actor and a 26-year-old actress, Romeo and Juliet—a play about children—is full of terrible, deeply childish ideas about love. And as much as I want to see more interracial couples in pop culture and more diverse casts on stage and screen, I don’t want to see them cast in material that is so horribly depressing.
Romeo and Juliet itself hasn’t aged well. The story follows Juliet Capulet, who is 13 when she meets Romeo Montague at a party, falls head over heels in love with him, and marries him within a day of meeting him. Romeo's age isn't specified in the play, but the quickness with which he throws over a former flame for Juliet doesn’t suggest a particularly mature man. Maybe this works on the page, when we’re not forced to watch actors and actresses who are clearly in their 20s and 30s behave like early teenagers. But the effect is embarrassing and unsettling for today’s theater audiences, perhaps already fretting over suspended adolescence and stunted millenials.
Update the play to match the aged-up actors in the two main roles, and the plot still doesn't make a lot of sense. Why are the families fighting? What was the inciting incident? The absence of a reason does mean that adaptations can fill in space that Shakespeare left behind, making the warring parties Puerto Rican and Polish-American, for instance, or Israeli and Palestinian. But even then, having the two lovers kill themselves through a series of misunderstandings doesn't translate well in a setting that takes any sort of modern communications for granted. And it's hard to believe the couple, no matter how lovelorn, would lack the patience to wait 24 hours to get hitched—not to mention the savvy to check up on a bad report from Verona.
But beyond that, the vision of Romeo and Juliet's deaths uniting their families is an adolescent fantasy of death solving all problems, a "won't they miss me when I'm gone" pout. There's a reason that, in the best modern riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Maria lives after Tony's death to shame the Sharks and the Jets, her survival a seal on the truce between them. Dying is easy. Living to survive the consequences of your actions and to do the actual work of reconciliation is the hard part. An interracial Romeo and Juliet is nice, but black actors and actresses deserve richer roles than Romeo and Juliet.
Correction, April 3, 2012: Due to an editing error, this post originally referred to Leveaux's production as "race-blind." A more apt term is interracial, as actors' races were taken into account during casting.