David Stradley is the Producing Artistic Director for Merchant of Venice
From October 24-November 18, Delaware Shakespeare will present The Merchant of Venice as its 2018 Community Tour production. The Community Tour brings professional Shakespeare to the full spectrum of humanity in our state by offering free performances in non-traditional locations such as homeless shelters, prisons, psychiatric care facilities, low income-senior apartments, and other community centers before presenting two concluding ticketed performances at the OperaDelaware Studios.
We realize many members of the Delaware Jewish community may have questions about why Delaware Shakespeare is producing The Merchant of Venice. I am grateful for this opportunity to share some of the thoughts behind this production and the positive impact we hope it will have in the community.
Why is Delaware Shakespeare producing The Merchant of Venice?
As we traveled around the state in October and November 2016 on our first Community Tour, we began thinking about sharing The Merchant of Venice as its themes, unfortunately, became all too timely during the election campaign which saw increased instances of hate speech and hate crimes, including anti-Semitism. These incidents continued in 2017. In its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 57% increase in 2017.
Delaware Shakespeare aims to position the performance as an exploration of the corrosive impact of anti-Semitism and xenophobia and engage the community in a conversation about how we can ensure that those who are perceived as different are not treated unjustly. There is no Shakespeare play that could better facilitate this conversation than The Merchant of Venice.
What do I need to know about this production?
In addition to a powerful performance, several other elements will surround the production. On Tuesday, October 16, as a fundraiser to support the tour, we will hold a mock appeal of the famous trial scene in the play. Hosted by Delaware Law School and with a judges panel presided over by former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Randy Holland, this event will explore issues of law and social justice in the play.
At the actual performance, audience members will find in the program questions to consider and historical context related to anti-Semitism (these questions and historical notes will also be covered in a prep workshop that will be made available to each of our 18 community partner venues). I will echo some of those questions and framing statements during brief pre-show comments. Then immediately following each performance, we will have a structured conversation with carefully planned questions to get the audience responding, making connections, and brainstorming positive actions. We hope each audience member will leave with at least one specific step they can take to reduce anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
What should I expect from the performance?
Community Tour productions are incredibly intimate and raw affairs. We perform in spaces such as conference rooms and gymnasiums, with a 15’x15’ playing area and the audience on all four sides, no more than three rows deep.
As the Community Tour performs for very diverse audiences, our 9-actor cast will reflect that incredible diversity. For example, Kirk Wendell Brown, an African-American actor, will play the role of Shylock. This choice was made, in part, to encourage audiences to consider other population groups who may be treated in similar ways to how we see Shylock treated.
If you don’t know the play, you should expect a challenging story in which Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is systematically separated from his faith and his wealth and subjected to hate speech by members of the Christian majority in Venice, Italy.
At the beginning of our production, you can expect to see a Shylock who has a desire to connect with and be accepted by the Christian majority. Once his daughter, Jessica, abandons him to marry one of the Christian characters, you will see a Shylock driven by pain to try to reclaim some sense of justice. Throughout, you should see a Shylock who is yearning, at times desperately, for his humanity to be accepted by his fellow Venetians.
You can also expect to see a Jessica who is torn by her decision to leave her father and her faith.
What does success look like for this production?
If an audience member comes to this performance with anti-Semitic or xenophobic views, we would hope this audience member would be horrified at the way Shylock is treated during the trial scene and be shocked that the other characters do not realize the damage they have done to Shylock. The audience member may even wonder whether they personally have ever acted in a similar way.
For an audience member who is aware of the corrosive impact of anti-Semitism and xenophobia but not committed to taking restorative action, we would hope the audience member would be inspired to take proactive steps to create a more just world.
For a Jewish audience member, watching the story told by a diverse group of actors and in front of an audience reflecting a diversity of experiences, many of whom have also been marginalized, we would hope the audience member would be strengthened by new allies in the fight against anti-Semitism and experience an expanded sense of welcoming the stranger, which I have learned is a fundamental Jewish value.
During the past year, I have been welcomed by various members of the Jewish community in meetings about this production. While at times challenging, the conversations have been marked by intelligence, respect, and dignity, as well as a willingness to listen and be changed.
Through these conversations I have also learned of the Jewish value of tikkun olam – repairing the world. At its most fundamental level, this is what Delaware Shakespeare hopes our production of The Merchant of Venice can achieve. While the play captures painful damage specific to the Jewish community, by exploring it in a way that highlights our shared humanity we can find steps to mend tears in a broader social fabric.