I was a few months sober, sitting in a dirty PAX in Union Square, waiting for my then-boyfriend (now husband) to meet me before going to an AA meeting together, when my dear friend Michel Hausmann called and asked if I’d be interested in doing an adaptation of Miss Julie. Specifically, a bi-lingual adaptation for his theater in Miami. His goal was to bring the Latinx and White audiences together through reimagining familiar texts. In my angst-ridden, newly sober, how do I distract myself state of mind, I jumped at the opportunity—before actually reading Miss Julie.
Full disclosure: I grew up in mostly rural America where theater is non-existent. I ran away to LA a week after graduating high school with no desire to ever step foot in any academic setting again. I didn’t go to college (many years later, I received a fellowship to Juilliard), but I’ve never studied theater. My only education of “the classics” was in 10th grade when our English teacher showed us the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet in class, but fast-forwarded through the sex scene, which was the only part of the movie any of us actually wanted to watch.
As soon as I got off the phone, sitting in this PAX, I downloaded and read Miss Julie. I HATED IT. With utter passion. It was clear Strindberg had disdain for women, and viewed our existence through the Madonna/Whore lens. And he believed “White” male sexuality, an innate quality men are entitled to without question, is the epitome of strength. In his author’s preface Strindberg states, “Miss Julie is a modern character. Not that the man-hating half-woman has not existed in all ages but because now that she has been discovered, she has come out in the open to make herself heard.” And, “Jean is superior to Miss Julie because he is a man. Sexually, he is an aristocrat because of his masculine strength…” And, in his reference to Kristine (he calls the “female slave”), “If my minor characters seem abstract, it is because ordinary people are abstract in their occupations.”
I fundamentally disagree with all of this. I believe ordinary people are unique, complicated, and deserving of dignity. I believe sexuality—female or male—doesn’t define the character or value of a human being. I believe men are capable of vulnerability and gentleness, “masculinity” is often performative and about survival. I believe women are capable of strength and intellectual ideas. I believe people are equal in their flaws, their need for intimacy and love, their desire to be seen and valued. I believe choice comes out of circumstances. If we can understand the reality of a person’s life, we can find empathy — especially in the darkness.
So the only way I could write this adaptation is to subvert Strindberg at every turn. And being a Latinx woman writing for a mostly Latinx community, I wanted to explore the complexity of Latinidad—Latinx is far from monolithic, as most popular culture would have us believe. Each character represents a perspective of the Latinx experience. John is Haitian/Cuban, Julie is white/Colombian, and Christine is a recent Venezuelan refugee, of Ashkenazi descent. There is racism, colonialism, assumptions, and blindspots in all of them. Yet all three have a deep connection to their heritage, and a desperation to be seen through that lens.
The trap, of course, is to view this play through the lens of the original Miss Julie. So I want to encourage audiences, readers, and future productions to approach this play on its terms. Julie is grounded, John hides his empathy and gentleness under the facade of masculinity, and Christine is unapologetically pragmatic. All three characters are filled with grief and trauma. Nothing they do comes out of cruel or malicious or superficial intent. Everything they do comes out of a deep need for connection, understanding, intimacy, pain. They must be approached with honesty and dignity.
Unlike Strindberg, I believe hope is on the other side of darkness. If we can face our pain without weaponizing it, if we can learn to have empathy for the pain in others, perhaps we can find hope and healing.
Queen of Basel is really a play about empathy.