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Conversation with the Director

Director Henry Godinez talked about his vision for Measure for Measure with the staff of Chicago Shakespeare, in a conversation facilitated by Creative Producer Rick Boynton.


What initially brought you to Measure for Measure?

Henry Godinez: My longtime friend Barbara Gaines called me a couple of years ago, wanting us to find a Shakespeare play that had a strong personal connection for me and might also speak to some of the racial tensions in our country. I’ve always loved Measure for Measure, and I immediately thought of my Cuban heritage. I started thinking about the play’s themes of hypocrisy and self-righteousness and all the parallels with Cuba in the 1950s—its nightclubs, sensuality, eroticism, and lasciviousness, all existing in stark contrast to the religious and pious element of that society and culture. The primary difference in my mind between Shakespeare’s “Vienna” and our “Havana” is that religious piety rather than ideological piety fuels the events in Measure for Measure.


Can you tell us more about your own relationship to Cuba over your lifetime?

I was born there around the time of the revolution and came to this country when I was very young. In 2003 I returned when I was invited to attend a seminar on Afro-Cuban ritual and Caribbean theater. I went and rediscovered my birthplace. I witnessed firsthand how hypocritical the revolution and its leaders were. They promised to do away with racism, with sex work, with the way that Cuba had been appropriated in the ‘50s by the mafia and movie stars as their playground. But on my first day there I was propositioned on the street, so clearly sex work was still very much a part of the culture. As was racism. I soon realized that none of the nice homes or areas were populated by Black Cubans. You see people of every shade on the island—but you don’t see Black Cubans or women in positions of power there.


Given what you’ve said, did race and the destructive impact of colorism shape your casting process—and the story these actors will be telling?

Yes, very much so. The prejudices embedded in colorism play an essential role in the story we’ll be telling. The character of Escalus, for example, is being played by a Black actor; the hypocrisy begins in this play as soon as the Duke names Angelo as his deputy. The Duke knows that Escalus is the most qualified to take his place, but he chooses Angelo instead. In our production, he doesn’t give her the job as a Black woman; he gives it to Angelo, to a man who’s not as dark as she is. And the white actors who were cast are strategically placed in roles to represent certain types of power.

And then there’s the character of Barnardine. Two of my favorite Shakespeare scholars, Harold Bloom and Harold Goddard, see Barnardine as the most significant character in the play—one who has just two scenes. Barnardine is in prison for a murder so long ago that nobody can really remember the particulars. When Angelo demands to see Claudio’s head as proof of his execution, the Duke proposes that Barnardine’s head— and execution—could be substituted to save Claudio.

But when they go to tell Barnardine that he’s got to die, the prisoner outright rejects the plan. Barnardine is the one character who doesn’t play the game. He’s not a hypocrite. I started to think of him in terms of what’s going on currently on the island. The group that threatens the revolution most right now are these young Black rappers in Santiago de Cuba, who are creating music that calls out the state on its racism. The government has tried to shut them down, persecuting and imprisoning them. I began thinking of Barnardine as one of these young Black rappers today, who’s part of a movement called the San Isidro Movement. This choice affects the way we end our story and how we may see the real revolution.


How do Angelo’s and Isabel’s characters align with these parallels you see with Cuban culture and history?

I think that Angelo, like the revolution, starts with a genuine desire to instigate change, to react against the appropriation of culture and rampant lasciviousness. But then he meets Isabel and gives up his ideals to satisfy his carnal ambitions. I see such parallels with revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and what was likely originally a true and righteous response to dictatorship, to the repression by Batista’s government. Then, like Angelo, they were overwhelmed and intoxicated by power. And on a very personal level, I started to see the character of Isabel represented in my own family, and how religious my sisters and my mom were.


Can you talk some about the role that music will play in this production?

You cannot separate Cuba from music. It’s one and the same. In the world of our play, Mistress Overdone’s brothel is really a nightclub, where you can find beautiful girls, beautiful boys—whatever the movie stars and rich people are looking for. I wanted to collaborate with Orbert Davis, one of the great jazz trumpeters in the world and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. For years Orbert has traveled to Cuba to work with young musicians there who had no idea of what jazz really was. Through this work, he has developed relationships with many young artists there—one of whom co-composed the music for this show with him.

In this so-called late “comedy” in Shakespeare’s writing, humor and drama exist uncomfortably side by side. Where do you see this production living? If Shakespeare has taught me anything, it’s about antithesis and the contrasts in our lives every day. From broad malapropisms to subtle irony, there are so many kinds of humor in this play that we’re looking to mine for those contrasts. Giving the comedy the chance to be as silly and wacky as it is sets up those darker, more threatening moments, making them all the more impactful and unsettling to witness.


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