District Merchants, in its world premiere at Folger Theatre, is a tour de force that explores the complexity of race and identity in Reconstruction-era America. As part of Folger Theatre’s 2016 celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare and in tandem with its exhibition America’s Shakespeare, Folger commissioned this very fine reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by Aaron Posner.
Posner should be no stranger to DC-area theater lovers: besides being a long-time DC director and the author of more than a dozen plays, his excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted at Woolly Mammoth in 2013 and was such a blow-out success that it returned in 2014. Indeed, Stupid F—ing Bird was one of the top ten plays produced in the entire United States last year.
Theater J debuted his Life Sucks (or The Present Ridiculous), an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015, another affecting production that explored the delicate balance of life constantly teetering between ridiculous hilarity and despondency.
Well, Mr. Posner, you’ve done it again. This time, you’ve taken on the master, the big Mr. S., and you’ve nailed it. District Merchants explodes with layers of complexity and this production, directed by Michael John Garcés, a company member at Woolly Mammoth and Artistic Director of LA’s Cornerstone Theater, is not to be missed.
The play primarily takes place in post-Civil War Washington, DC, where people grapple with a world of transition and reconciling the sins of slavery with America’s future. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender and overprotective father of Jessica, a young woman who yearns to escape from her father’s gaze, and employer of Lancelot (Akeem Davis), a recently freed slave who wonders why he continues to work for a harsh master. Antoine, a Black businessman, is a father figure to Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue), who in turn loves the beautiful and ambitious Portia (Maren Bush) and is best friends with Lorenzo (William Vaughan). Portia employs Nessa (Celeste Jones), an intelligent foil to Portia’s professed progressivism.
The action focuses on the struggles for Black Americans – both those that had been slaves and those that had not – during this era as well as Jewish Americans and the discrimination and marginalization that both experience. Posner has faced the most problematic aspect of Shakespeare’s play here full-on: he turns the question of anti-Semitism on its head, layering in the difficult relationships between two groups historically treated as “Other” in America.
Many people regard The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare’s most distressing play, as its apparent anti-Semitism can never seem to be adequately justified. Is Shylock a sympathetic character, one whose actions we can comprehend or with whose pain we can emphathize? Critics of Shakespeare tend to think the answer to this question is that we cannot; that the original words of Shakespeare exploit negative Jewish stereotypes in a way that is meant to offer comic resolution, not sympathy. However, this Shylock, in a fantastic performance by Matthew Boston, is beleaguered and full of pain. He is mistreated again and again; he is abandoned by his daughter Jessica (Dani Stoller); he feels like a man who has at the end of his rope, who has no choice but to act out against Antoine (Craig Wallace) just to be able to exert some power in his life.
And this is a theme throughout the play: the exercise of power or, rather, the painful lack of power that so many individuals have simply because of their skin color or gender. In a world where doors are shut for women, Blacks, and Jews, we see various characters “passing” for what they are not. Every person struggles, in his or her own way, against both society’s limitations and the limitations of their own character and will to effect change.
The set, designed by Tony Cisek, purposely evokes a city that is being rebuilt: the pillars are half-finished, exposing a construction scene behind it. The pillars conjure Rome, a reminder of the greatness of the American Experiment, the intention that America would itself be a great nation, a new society of promise. However, the evocation of Rome introduces an interesting element to the backdrop of the city in transition: is America in the process of being rebuilt or will it, like Rome, fall of its own corruptions? Is this a city in rebirth or decline? The answer may not yet be answered.
It is worth noting that the music is created by Christylez Bacon, another homegrown District virtuoso. Bacon – who performs throughout the area, often collaborating with international musicians in innovative and unique performances – is a Grammy Award-nominated progressive hip-hop artist and multi-instrumentalist, not least of which is wizardry with spoons and his own beatbox.
The entire cast is very fine: every character is played with remarkable depth and energy. There are several astonishing moments in the production: in one scene, Bush exhibits an extraordinary range of facial expression, flushing through a dozen complex emotions in an extended silent and awkward scene. Boston’s monologue – the famous “Do we not bleed?” speech by Shylock – is remarkably powerful and uncomfortable, partly due to an unnerving direct interaction with the audience (at this production, it happened to be with Ari Roth, of Mosaic Theater Company of DC) that exposes the raw anguish at being part of a group that is treated as Other by society.
It is no stretch to read currents of present-day conflicts, of Ferguson, of Baltimore, of rising xenophobia in this country against many groups, in this play. This play is not merely a tale of marginalization and struggles after the Civil War: while America may bear the long shadow of slavery, it bears still many wounds that continue to be inflicted, day after day. We cannot heal while we are still in the act of harming, and hurting.