A new production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—with the first black Shylock in New York in almost 200 years—completes its run at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn this weekend and then travels to Washington, D.C., where it will be offered by the Shakespeare Theatre Company from March 22 to April 21.
The new production, which features John Douglas Thompson as Shylock and is directed by Arin Arbus, continues the co-producing relationship between the two companies.
With The Merchant of Venice, Thompson and Arbus continue to build on a long-time collaboration that began with Arbus’s Off-Broadway directorial debut, in which Thompson played the title role in TFANA’s 2009 production of Othello. She has since directed him in TFANA’s 2011 production of Macbeth (in which he again took on the title role) and, in rotating repertory in 2016, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, adapted by Thornton Wilder, and Strindberg’s The Father, in a new version by David Greig.
Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director of TFANA, said, “Many brilliant actors have played Shylock, including Richard Burbage in the original production in the 1590s and, over the next 400 years, such celebrated performers as Charles Macklin, Henry Irving, Laurence Olivier, Jacob Adler, F. Murray Abraham, George C. Scott, Al Pacino, Jonathan Pryce, and Patrick Stewart. Ira Aldridge, the first great American Shakespearean, left New York City for Britain in 1824 due to racial discrimination. Aldridge is rightly celebrated for his Othello, the first by a Black actor (though he could not play the role in America, only in Britain and Europe). In 1831, Aldridge became the first Black actor to play Shylock and three decades later was followed in the role in Britain by another African American actor, Samuel Morgan Smith. Black actors who went on to play Shylock in the United States include Paul Butler at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1994 and Johnny Lee Davenport in 2005 at the Milwaukee Shakespeare Theatre. Nearly 200 years after Aldridge first starred in the role, John Douglas Thompson will be the first Black actor to play Shylock in New York City for Theatre for a New Audience.”
The production’s company also includes Isabel Arraiza as Portia, Shirine Babb as Nerissa, Jeff Biehl as Balthazar, Danaya Esperanza as Jessica, Alfredo Narciso as Antonio and Sanjit De Silva as Bassanio.
A medieval center of trade and an early mercantile state, Venice is often considered a birthplace of capitalism. “Perhaps not coincidentally,” noted Arbus, “it’s also the birthplace of the original ghetto.” Within the world of Shakespeare’s predominantly Christian Venice, as a Jew, Shylock is treated as a second-class citizen or worse. In 16th-century Venice, Jews were prohibited from practicing most professions. They were required to wear Jewish signifiers on their clothing. They were not allowed to own land, but rather had to rent homes within the gated ghetto that was locked every evening.
Said Arbus, “The play depicts a divided society saturated with hate and inequity. The world boils with anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, classism, and homophobia. In private, even Portia – the ingénue – makes overtly racist jokes about the color of the Prince of Morocco’s skin. In this deeply stratified society laws enforce inequity. The societal systems enable certain groups of people to have power and ensure that others don’t. In Shakespeare’s Venice there’s predatory lending, a biased justice system, discriminatory practices in housing and commercial markets and the original ghetto. Any of that sound familiar? By casting a black man as Shylock in America (today) one becomes painfully aware of the connections between Shakespeare’s 16th century Venice and our world now.”
In 2007, TFANA produced The Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, directed by Darko Tresnjak in repertory with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta directed by David Herskovits, exploring the two Elizabethan authors’ treatment of Jewish characters.
In the winter of 2020, TFANA and Shakespeare Theatre Company co-produced, in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens featuring Kathryn Hunter, who appeared most recently in the film, The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen.