Reimagining The Merchant of Venice — in DC

July, 12 2016

by Katelyn Haas

As the stage lights dim, faint hip-hop can be heard in the background like a slow drumroll, setting the stage for the two main characters as they stand side by side, joking with one another as well as the audience with slight tension. They prepare the audience for an experience of humor—but also, they warned, of great conflict.

In preparation for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2016 celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare, the DC-based Shakespeare research library and theater has commissioned playwright Aaron Posner to produce a reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s most Jewishly problematic works, The Merchant of Venice.

Set in Reconstruction-era Washington, DC, District Merchants follows the conflict and cooperation between both black and Jewish populations. Following the plot and characters of the original, it specifically concerns three different sets of contrast between the two classes. The two pillars of the play, Shylock, an Orthodox Jew, and Antoine, a free-born black man, work to understand each other, failing and succeeding to connect along the way.

Posner examines themes of race, revenge and desire that transcend era while plucking bits and pieces of the original plot, preserving the source of conflict—the mistrust between Shylock and Antonio/Antoine and their wager for a pound of flesh, as well as the inner conflict Shylock faces as he struggles to balance respect and revenge.

There are already Jewish overtones throughout the original Merchant, but Posner says he decided to also add the African American element through Antoine. There is cooperation and conflict between the two populations, who work together and compete to profit in post-Civil War DC. Racial and religious prejudices also come into play and drive the conflict of the show.

Posner found District Merchants’ production process particularly interesting because of the characters’ problematic moral choices and prejudices.

“When you look at the world now, the story of those who have and those who have not, and this prejudice towards one another—it’s a very interesting story,” Posner says.

Posner says it was a quote from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice that inspired the addition of the conflict between Jews and African Americans:

You have among you many a purchased slave,

Which—like your asses and your dogs and mules—

You use in abject and in slavish parts

Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,

“Let them be free! Marry them to your heirs!

Why sweat they under your burdens? Let their beds

Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates

Be seasoned with such viands?” You will answer,

‘”The slaves are ours.”

“Once I thought about this being set in America and in DC in particular… I thought that there was this provocative shift of two underclasses that are in competition, in connection, in antagonism,” Posner says.

What Posner did not set out to, however, was to find a “therefore,” or a clear message that the audience should take away. Instead, he gives the audience space to question and explore these themes.

“If you’re going to encounter Merchant in any way, asking questions about finding ways to think about who [Shylock] is and somebody who would take his actions, just grappling with him, not trying to understand and just let the audience explore them,” he says.

Posner’s production closed at Folger Theatre July 3rd, but he plans to continue the production in California, saying there is more to explore.

“When you’re dealing with religion, power, money or love combined in America at this time, there’s so much to explore and people are, particularly recently, really responding to that,” Posner says.

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