"District Merchants:" A Reconstruction-Era Remix

Kat Zukaitis
 | Sep 26, 2016
Jacob Adler as Shylock

A photograph of Jacob Adler as Shylock in a late 19th​-century performance of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Two merchants, both alike in dignity,
In the nation’s capital, in the post-war years.
It’s a theatrical version of 1873.
Love and lies give way to truth and tears.

In Reconstruction-era Washington, D.C., the future is up for grabs. Out of the bloody, bitter legacy of the Civil War, opportunity beckons: the opportunity for a nation to rebuild, and the opportunity for its citizens to claim new rights and identities. Two merchants in the nation’s capital, Antoine and Shylock, are determined to construct a better future for themselves and their loved ones. But opportunity can feel like a zero-sum game, especially for those who have spent their lives excluded from the hallowed halls of power.

Portia by Henry Woods

Portia, an 1888 lithograph by Henry Woods that appeared in Graphic, a weekly London newspaper.

In Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, Antoine and Shylock have faced down war and prejudice to emerge as some of the most successful merchants in Washington, D.C., and as leaders of the capital’s black and Jewish communities, respectively. But Antoine’s efforts to help his newly freed brethren find an economic foothold are frustrated when Shylock, bone-weary of being everybody’s scapegoat, refuses to grant them special consideration. To make matters more complicated, Antoine’s protégé, Benjamin, is passing as white in order to woo the brilliant, legal-minded heiress Portia—although he knows that Antoine will see passing as a betrayal of their heritage. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s rapscallion Irish friend Finneus is intent on running off with both Shylock’s wealth and his sheltered daughter, Jessica; and Portia’s servant Nessa, who is trying to be patient with her mistress’ strident feminism and unthinking racism, is making eyes at Shylock’s servant Lancelot.

The Panic of 1873 is catastrophic for both Shylock and Antoine, in different ways—and when Antoine defaults on a large loan, Shylock holds him to the agreed-upon price: a literal pound of flesh. As Portia rushes to the capital, disguised as a man, to come to Antoine’s legal defense, Jessica and Finneus run away to start a new life together, leaving Shylock desperately, dangerously alone. Passion and prejudice are taken to a new level as Shylock and Antoine’s feud comes to trial, and lovers and enemies alike must learn the terrible price of mercy.

If some of this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably encountered The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s iconic tale of Shylock the moneylender and his quest to exact a pound of flesh from the Venetian merchant Antonio. Merchant is the play that gave us the searing eloquence of Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” he asks, in an assertion of his basic humanity. Portia’s famous lines on mercy are also from this play: “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she says at the climactic trial, exhorting Shylock to show mercy to his debtor, Antonio. “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Shylock refuses her plea for mercy and, when he loses the trial, faces penury and forced conversion, a conclusion that has given pause to contemporary interpreters. Let’s face it. The Merchant of Venice is a quintessential “problem play.” The gorgeous poignancy of Shylock’s pained cry of humanity is inseparable from the anti-Semitic stereotypes and relentless mockery that pervade the play. Many recent productions have drawn attention to Shylock’s dignity and victimhood, portraying his vengefulness as an appropriate (or inevitable) response to his Christian antagonists’ hatred and hypocrisy, but any staging remains controversial.

John Gilbert's Shylock after the Trial

John Gilbert’s Shylock After the Trial, ca. 1873

Enter Aaron Posner, who directed SCR’s hugely popular, magic-infused production of The Tempest in 2014, and whose tongue-in-cheek adaptations of the works of Anton Chekhov have earned him a fervid national following. Using Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as a jumping-off point, Posner has concocted a deliciously witty, thought-provoking meditation on the limits of empathy, the difficulty of change and the power of love. Set against the backdrop of Reconstruction, which Posner describes as “this amazing moment of possibility that went so disastrously wrong,” District Merchants contains echoes of both ​16th-century Venice and contemporary America. Shylock is no longer the isolated “other;” instead, all eight characters have been excluded from power and privilege in some fashion, whether because of race, religion, gender or nationality. And over the course of the play, each of them must face the gaping chasm between what they want the world to be and what it is. Yes, the plot loosely follows that of Shakespeare’s Merchant; but the tough questions Posner asks about prejudice, hope, and progress speak to today.

District Merchants premiered last summer at Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre, an institution dedicated to the legacy of Shakespeare—but quick to embrace new adaptations that grapple with the Bard’s works in innovative ways. Michael Michetti, the co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court, takes the helm of South Coast Repertory’s production, which features designs by Daniel Conway (scenic), Garry Lennon (costumes), Elizabeth Harper (lighting), Peter Bayne (sound and original music) and Sean T. Cawelti (projections).

Read more about the cast here.