Myyki Blanco’s music video High School Never Ends riffs off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to explore homophobia, violence directed at an identifiable Other, and the thin line between being designated as “in” but not “of” Europe or other geopolitically defined spaces. Directed by Mark Lambert, with cinematography by Martin Ruhe, the video is styled as a short film. Set in rural Germany, the video features Blanco, an American hip-hop artist who identifies as transgender, in a relationship with a member of a street gang. There is a dense visual language here, with Shakespeare’s iconic lovers as only one among a range of cultural references. But the video cues its audience to its Shakespearean intertext, quoting from the play’s prologue – “Two households, both alike in dignity […], From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” – in its opening titles. In this queer adaptation, Romeo and Juliet are less signifiers of amor vincit omnia than of violence and hate crimes as recurrent, relentless realities. Blanco and Lambert have drawn analogies between their production and the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe:
“It never once overtly comments on orientation or race, but only ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them,’” explains Lambert.
“I had once thought Europe was my safe haven from American white supremacy, and how wrong I became.”
From the invocation of place – of America, of Europe – we move to the suggestion of heterotopias and alternate stories to the binary logic of “us” and “them”. The video intercuts images of the adult Romeo and Juliet figures with scenes of their teen counterparts, at once suggesting a lost innocence, a time before their bodies and desires were named and categorised as aberrant, and at the same time reflecting on the destructive repetition of phobic attitudes to successive generations of those deemed queer or deviant based on race, gender, or sexuality.
The video adapts the play’s own conjuring of Romeo and Juliet as existing beyond the space and time of their family’s grudge, bending it to contemporary iterations of race, gender and sexuality without reducing text or context. Blanco and Lambert might be said to identify the play’s legacy or its affect not as tragedy but love, in terms provided by Carlos Antônio Leite Brandão when he writes that
“the play makes us rediscover a kind of love that is free, a way to construct our humanity and our fate, which we are responsible for in a world dominated by business and by pragmatic, banal, and utilitarian relationships. Such love […] is really what must also be performed in our twenty-first century Veronas.”
Working by implication and a transfer of meanings, High School Never Ends suggests one kind of contemporary Verona based on violence, intolerance and hatred of the racialized Other, while it also gestures toward a space of possibility for Europe, a symbolic “Verona” in which an ethical responsibility to the Other is recognised. Romeo and Juliet emerges in this iteration as “European,” not in some essentialist sense of primary origin but rather as a text that speaks to the vicissitudes of contemporary European identity politics.
For more on Romeo and Juliet’s afterlives, see Stephen O’Neill’s “‘In fair [Europe], where we lay our scene”: Romeo and Juliet, Europe and digital cultures'” in Romeo and Juliet in European Culture, eds. Juan F. Cerdá, Dirk Delabastita, Keith Gregor (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2017).