California Dreamin’: Shakespeare and the Border

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California Dreamin’: Shakespeare and the Border

By Leticia Garcia, University of California at Irvine

California’s border communities, in particular Imperial County,  neighbored to the south by the state of Baja California, Mexico, to the east the state of Arizona, and to the west San Diego County are inescapable to the convergence of barriers, their permeability, and cultural influences of the migrant groups. These “immigrant cities” put to question ideologies of cultural identity, global political life, tradition and culture, contributing to the evolution and transformation of nearly every aspect of social life, not only in the borderlands, but also within the United States; this includes the representation and evolution of the arts. In typical Southern Californian communities primarily populated by people of Mexican descent and self-identified as Mexican-Americans, Shakespeare doesn’t factor frequently in the everyday lives of border-dwellers. The members of the communities touched by Shakespeare’s works are the ones that have been exposed to Shakespeare though the public and private education sectors. Performances are rare, and even rarer, the cultural and literary presence of Shakespeare. The tagline of a former production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream oddly read, “Come take a magical, Shakespearean romp through Holtville! Love gets confused, mirages make mischief and bickering vegetables rehearse a play. Can everything possibly get sorted out in time for the Carrot Festival?”  Absolutely nothing in the tagline is reminiscent of the play’s traditional performance history. The production was performed in front of an audience reflective of an important demographic trend, what critics refer to as the “Latinization of Southern California.” “A Holtville Night’s Dream” was staged by Cornerstone Theatre of Los Angeles in the summer of 2007.

Located in Imperial County, the city of Holtville with a population of about 6,000 citizens, serves as the background to Shakespeare’s Athenian comedy. Here, agriculture, the heat, and food are the cornerstone of the typical Imperial County upbringing. The multi-ethnic, ensemble based theatre company that specializes in community-based collaborations is aimed at depicting the rural and urban communities of Southern California. Cornerstone Theatre’s summer residency in the hybridized space of the U.S.-Mexico border, for the first time in the community that I grew up in, made Shakespeare familiar and approachable and culturally relevant. The significance of place and culture dominated the production, as it was the first time Shakespeare had been staged in such a culturally relevant production in the area. The levity and care-free nature of Southern California is palpable in the play’s adaptation, as well as the bisection of the international boundary dividing us from our neighbors to the south.

The production itself was unique as it utilized many customs native to the area; cultural productions of this nature are rare. Adapted by Alison Carey and the citizens of Holtville, the play substitutes the actual town’s reputation as “Carrot Capital of the world” for Athens. Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding party have become committee members and participants of the annual Carrot Festival. Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena are portrayed as students at the local high school. The world of Oberon and his fairies are transformed into desert mirages. A group of gossiping Hispanic women and men meta-theatrically discussed the play in “Spanglish.” A ship of Vikings rescue fair Hermia in the woods, and new characters are introduced to the play-text. The rude mechanicals have become crops, including Bottom as a Carrot who is later turned into the local irrigation district’s water safety mascot by Puck. Instead of the marriage of Pyramus and Thisbe, Cornerstone replaced it with Imperial Valley’s actual history; an adaptation of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth –  a novel inspired by early settlers of the region. This metaphorically strengthened Cornerstone’s ethos of collaboration and cultural integration through performance.

Much like the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival and Globe to Globe project based in London, Cornerstone Theatre’s 2007 production shed new light on the importance of multi-cultural integration and importance to understand ethnicity through Shakespeare’s works. These festivals and performances are utilizing Shakespeare’s versatility to identify with geography, space, cultures, theater and performance practices, languages, and audiences from across the world.  However, Cornerstone’s production is of particular importance, as the social, political, historical, and cultural shifts of the geographic region are heavily reflected in the company’s interpretation. Imperial County as a border town has limited performance instances in the world of Shakespeare. By engaging in the cultural production, the collaborative effort between Cornerstone and the city of Holtville altered Shakespeare’s play as we are familiar with it quite significantly. Place, art, and culture within the border are typically ascribed to the hard borders of globalization and hybridization, yet within the production of “A Holtville Night’s Dream,” a diversification occurs. The spheres of Shakespeare, Mexico, and Southern California merge to allow for greater artistic experimentation, leading to a re-mapping of what it means to be culturally hybridized in the present day. To borrow from Chicana scholar and artist Amalia Mesa-Bains, ‘I think it’s hard for people to understand that all the time California has been California, it’s always been Mexico…It’s invisible to everyone except Mexicans. We’ve known it, we see it, we live it, but Californians don’t know it.’ The fluidity of Mexican culture destabilizes perceptions of borders, and lends itself well to the universal appeal of Shakespeare.


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Author:Leticia Garcia

Leticia Garcia earned her MA from the Shakespeare Institute in 2011, and is currently studying for a PhD at UC Irvine. Her research interests are primarily focused on Shakespeare’s worldwide appeal as a cultural symbol, and her doctoral work will critically examine the implications of cross-cultural artistic exchange between Mexican/Mexican-American culture and Shakespeare.

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