Last weekend, I set out eagerly to see two new productions that prominently center Blackness: director Arin Arbus’s “Shakespeare”.Venetian merchant” and “Black No More,” a new musical with a creative team inspired by a 1931 satirical novel about race in America.
“The Merchant of Venice,” a New Audience Theater production at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, won first place. Here Arbus strongly incorporates contemporary politics into the work that he places in a modern day setting. The tension between Arbus’ direction and the text is most evident in a scene where the Jewish moneylender Shylock quotes the laws regarding the enslaved when arguing that if a merchant fails to pay his debt, he should be paid back:
There are many slaves bought among you
Like your asses, your dogs, and your mules,
You use it in the disgusting and slavish parts
Because you bought them. Shall I tell you
‘Let them be free and marry your heirs.
Why do they sweat under the load?’
Speech takes on a different meaning in this race-conscious production. The actor who plays Shylock John Douglas ThompsonShylock’s Jewish identity is subject to another: a Black identity.
While “The Merchant” reflects our current racial policies and sensitivities through the director’s vision, “Black No More” New Group’s musical is based on the main ways its screenplay deviates from the original novel. Both performances serve as almost reactionary works of criticism; “The Merchant” criticizes Shakespeare’s text, and “Black No More” criticizes the bleak satire of the novel. And while every production brings art from the past to the present, sometimes in brilliant ways, it’s not always easy to recontextualize outdated plots, themes, and characters. The past pushes back.
In this “The Merchant”, the protagonist Antonio and his best friend Bassanio, to whom he offers his fortune and almost life, are lovers. The women—heir Portia, his maid Nerissa, and Shylock’s daughter Jessica—do eventually marry, as is usually the rule in Shakespeare’s comedies, but are unhappy and wise to their husbands’ misogyny and other flaws. And then Shylock and his daughter (and Shylock’s Jewish friend Tubal) are all Black, bringing up a history of racial discrimination, slavery, and prejudice.