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The Folger Spotlight

Q&A with Carmen Pelaez

The Reading Room Festival: The Cuban Vote

A Cuban American woman with brown hair wearing glasses

The Reading Room Festival (Jan 25-28) features new work and conversations inspired by, in response to, or in dialogue with the plays of William Shakespeare. Leading up to the festival, we’re doing a Q&A series with the creators involved.

One of the new plays featured at The Reading Room Festival this year is The Cuban Vote by Carmen Pelaez, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. “Setting this love story amid a political campaign in Miami seemed like a perfect fit,” writes Pelaez. Read more in the Q&A below, and join us for a staged reading on Friday, Jan 26, at 8pm.


FOLGER: What’s the story behind the creation of your play and its early life? What was your process?

I’ve always loved that initial scene between Katherine and Petruchio. The fire, the fight, the humor. A woman that would not be contained and a man that obviously immediately loved her for it. I had come across Raul Julia and Meryl Streep performing that scene in Central Park in a documentary about Julia’s life and the fire between them, the surprising vulnerability they experience upon realizing they had met their match, the way they challenged each other…it was a dynamic I not only recognized but an ideal I’d always wanted to experience and I wanted to explore it not only as a writer but as an actor.

Being Cuban and a thick girl, romantic leads are not what I get to audition for. And even though I love acting Shakespeare, I never imagined I would get to play anything other than the nurse in Romeo and Juliet—a play I don’t connect with AT ALL—don’t get me started… But Katherine…Katherine I wanted to make mine. But how?

I had worked for different political campaigns in Miami as the Cuban American consultant and the more I became involved, the more I believed that love and politics were indistinguishable in their primal nature. The adrenaline, the strategy of the conquest, the presentational spectacle of the whole thing that fails miserably unless you find a way to communicate what’s at stake, be it policy or your heart. The behind-the-scenes aspect of it all. What we reveal, what we choose to withhold. The parallels were clear, culminating with the idea that to truly love, just as in to truly serve, one must be comfortable inside their vulnerabilities.

Setting this love story amid a political campaign in Miami seemed like a perfect fit. When I discussed the idea with Michel Hausmann of Miami New Drama, he commissioned the play on the spot.

FOLGER: Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to interrogate in your play? 

Once I re-read Taming of the Shrew I was like ‘Oh, my, ga…’ My memory had been extremely selective in the aspects of the play that I loved. After that incredible first scene Petruchio’s sadistic ‘taming’ of Katherine’s wild spirit was unsettling.  Not to mention that the rest of Shrew is all over the place! To say it’s ‘problematic’ is an extreme understatement, which I later found out decades worth of scholars thought as well.  But I had already been commissioned to create an adaptation so I had to figure it out. Which in and of itself was a very Shakespearean situation to be in.

I went back to my initial spark and cherry-picked the aspects of the story that I loved. The essence of the attraction. The understanding the family has of each other’s nature. I also loved the idea of the Christopher Sly character. A hapless drunkard easily convinced he’s noble. I decided to focus on dynamics instead of plot and The Cuban Vote took off from there.

FOLGER: Any particular opportunities that arose in spring boarding off Shakespeare? 

There’s been a lot of research in recent years about who Shakespeare was or wasn’t. I personally think they are all getting it wrong. Shakespeare was Cuban! The extreme emotions, the self-effacing nature of his characters, the delusions of grandeur, the deep commitment to family, the star-crossed sensibilities, the comfort with strong women and ridiculously surreal situations. The more I read Shakespeare – his tragedies as much as his comedies – the more I am convinced that one day the research will reveal William was un Cubanzo. So whenever I hit an impasse, I leaned into the absurdity and energy of my Cuban culture and of Miami politics, and things came together.

FOLGER: What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this play?

Politically, I’ve never seen the world so divided. Cynical politicians are empowered in a way that’s tearing the world apart. I purposely didn’t name party because I wanted people to think about the ideas each candidate in the play was running on. I wanted to lay bare the different ways the electorate is manipulated in the hopes people will choose substance over style when they hit the voting booth. So much is possible when we treat politics like a tool and not a popularity contest.

I also wanted to reject the idea that any of us are only one thing. ‘Branding’ has become such a part of our daily lives, we often forget people will surprise us if we let them. But we have to let them.

FOLGER: What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room Festival? 

The more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. Unfortunately, for too long American theater had gotten so used to targeting specific audiences and narrow ideas of what or who a theatergoer is, I think we had lost collective sight of the fact that theater should speak about a specific experience to ALL audiences, not try and please one kind of audience by tailoring a story that only they can relate to. It’s a mistake we make in our political discourse as well.

I think the team at the Folger is at the forefront of a new wave of theater that fundamentally believes that if the story starts with a truth, it will not only be relatable, but it will expand our understanding of how we relate to the world, instead of the limited practice of how the world relates to us.