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Reconstructed Shakespeare Shows Bigotry Is Timeless

J. Samuel Davis plays Antoine in New Jewish Theatre's production of "District Merchants." 1/24/19
Eric Woolsey | New Jewish Theatre
J. Samuel Davis plays Antoine in New Jewish Theatre's production of "District Merchants."

In a heated conversation during the first act of “District Merchants,” a white immigrant tells a black man that he understands the other’s plight: “I know what is to be poor, hated and looked down on just because you’re, you know, you.”

The African-American points out that he lives with that stigma every day. White people see the word “thief” written on his face, he says. The immigrant replies: “Not everyone sees that!”

A version of this conversation could have been had in 16th-century Venice or post-Civil War Washington, D.C. — or a Twitter thread in 2019.

That’s part of the point of “District Merchants,” Aaron Posner’s 2016 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” A production by New Jewish Theatre begins performances Thursday.

Posner sets his play in Reconstruction-era Washington, D.C. The anti-Semitism seen in Shakespeare’s original still looms large, but it’s joined by the racism of a bitterly divided nation still adapting to the abolition of slavery. In its look backward, the play means to prompt conversations that are still relevant, as Americans continue to grapple with how systemic racism perpetuates the inequalities that flow from the nation’s original sin of slavery. 

“We’re doing this play at exactly the right time, in exactly the right city,” New Jewish Theatre artistic director Edward Coffield said. “I hope that this play pushes forward the conversation about where can we work to be better — between the Jewish community and the African-American community, and the St. Louis community as a whole.”

Shakespeare wrote about a Venetian merchant named Antonio and a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. “District Merchants” pairs Shylock with Antoine, a black man who helps newly freed slaves secure loans.

Gary Wayne Barker plays Shylock, the moneylender of "The Merchant of Venice" and now "District Merchants." 1/24/19
Credit Eric Woolsey | New Jewish Theatre
Gary Wayne Barker plays Shylock, the moneylender of "The Merchant of Venice" and now "District Merchants."

As in the original, the merchant harbors hatred toward Jews but needs a loan from Shylock — played by Gary Wayne Barker — to help a younger friend woo a lady of society. Posner complicates that dynamic by making Shylock and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis) old business partners, and suggesting that Antoine enriches himself at the expense of other African-Americans.

Antoine’s friend Benjamin (Rob White) is the offspring of an enslaved woman and her white master, and he passes as white to woo the aristocrat Portia, played by Courtney Bailey Parker. As in Shakespeare’s play, Portia disguises herself as a man to preside over the climactic trial in which Shylock seeks a “pound of flesh” from the merchant, but here, her subterfuge flows from a long-held desire to become a lawyer.

Scholars have long debated whether “The Merchant of Venice” is inherently an anti-Semitic play, or just a play about anti-Semitism. Posner’s retelling complicates that dynamic further by exploring racism, sexism, colorism and anti-immigrant fervor.

“All this stuff is mirrored in society,” director Jacqueline Thompson said. “All these themes, all these relationships are a clear glimpse into all of the uncomfortable things we deal with. It’s definitely a visceral, raw look into a myriad of things that we are looking at on the news, on social media, every single day.”

A highlight of Shakespeare’s play is Shylock’s https://youtu.be/Eh8xIy82ncc" target="_blank">eloquent speech about the essential humanity of the Jewish people. The contemporary reader might add that the same arguments could be made by an African-American facing a system that privileges white people by default.

“[...] Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.”
In “District Merchants,” Antoine interrupts this speech midway, objecting that Shylock profited from the slave trade. Shylock replies that slavery had been “the heart of the American economy,” and that the ancestors of “half the people in this room tonight” benefited from slavery as well.

It’s a tense moment onstage and may make for tension in the audience as well.

“You see the full circle of where we are and how far we still have to go and how some things have not changed at all,” Thompson said. “That’s uneasy. That’s scary.”

Coffield said some theatergoers will find parts of the play difficult to hear.

“It’s a hard play,” he said, “but I think hard plays are important for us to do.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jeremydgoodwin.

If you go

"District Merchants

When: Today through Feb. 10

Where: New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, St. Louis

Tickets: $42-$45

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.