District Merchants is set in Washington, more or less, in 1870, more or less.
The actors tell audience members that much in the first lines of the play, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Aaron Posner’s world premiere adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice unfolds in an imagined time and place, simultaneously Elizabethan, Reconstruction Era and modern day.
This is by no means a work of historical fiction, though Michele Osherow, the resident dramaturg says there was plenty to work with.
“The truth is he wasn’t very interested in having a lot of facts about the Washington Jewish community at that time,” she says. Instead of driving the play’s narrative, historical documentation assisted Osherow and Posner in ensuring the plausibility of the play’s setting and characters. “This is theatrical 1870,” Osherow says. “This is 1870-ish.”
For example, in his portrayal of Shylock, Matthew Boston adopts a heavy Eastern European accent. “Most of the immigrants who would have been in D.C. at that time would have been German Jews,” Osherow says. “But Aaron is more familiar with the Jewish history where Jews were escaping pogroms and came to this country.”
To make that work, the creative team shifted Shylock’s history to create a back story in which he escaped Ukraine, where there were pogroms in the early 19th century.
Posner says playwrights have a tendency to get swallowed up in the details, “I’ve seen these time and time again become traps for playwrights as they find fascinating tidbits that they want to then put in, even though that’s not what the play is eventually supposed to be about.”
Instead, he focused on what it would feel like to be Jewish at the time. “There was already that interesting tipping of distrust, of hatred, of exclusion on the one hand, and growing importance and power and prestige … on the other,” Posner says. “So it was me wondering what would be the emotional reality of that, and then of course in this play, how does that relate to the African American reality, another under-empowered, beleaguered people.”
In District Merchants, most of the Italian Christians are recast as recently freed slaves. Shakespeare’s wealthy Italian businessman Antonio becomes Antoine (Craig Wallace), an African American man who was born free and grew wealthy.
Excited as Jewish Washingtonians may be to see Shakespeare’s famously anti-Semitic play rewritten to operate within a local, historic context, that’s not strictly what they’re getting. Rather, Washington serves as a location where free African Americans could both operate successful businesses and hypothetically encounter their Jewish neighbors.
“Merchant of Venice is such an intriguing and problematic play,” Posner says. “It’s one that I have considered many times, seen many times, been asked to direct, and never wanted to do. It’s a play that bothers you.”
He explains that, in reimagining a play, the playwright has the option to strip villainous characters of their evil ways. “I did at times try versions that sort of softened the blow,” Posner says, “but if I undercut it or walk away from the difficulties, then it’s just a cop-out because anyone can do that.”
Instead, he examined who Shylock is and what he does, and tried to bring understanding to the character. District Merchants is recognizable as roughly the same story and narrative as The Merchant of Venice, but it’s not simply a retelling in a different time and place.
Dani Stoller plays Jessica, Shylock’s sheltered and resentful daughter. Suffocated by her father’s control — an effort to protect his only daughter from a cruel world — she has little familiarity with the outside world. When she meets a charming young man in the market, it doesn’t take much for him to convince her to run away with him.
Shakespeare’s Merchant depicts a young woman oppressed by her faith, which she rejects. In this version, directed by Michael John Garcés, Jessica leaves her father’s house, but brings her traditions with her.
“I love Jessica so much in this because she wants Lorenzo to be a part of her religion,” Stoller says. “She wants him to come with her, and I think that that’s so beautiful.”
Boston says this is his first time portraying Shylock, a role he was able to approach with fresh eyes. “This Shylock has never existed in the world before, so that’s been kind of wonderful and freeing,” he says.
Boston says Posner’s play urges audience members to see Shylock as a human being and to understand his pain.
“It’s all about pain and what pain drives people to do, and Shylock in Shakespeare and Shylock in Merchant — Aaron’s Merchant — are the same in that way,” Boston says. “Pain drives us to desperate acts, irrational acts.”
He says Posner’s retelling humanizes hatred, prejudice and how it feels “to be anyone in the world who’s been bullied, devalued, marginalized.”
By juxtaposing the African-American experience and the pain of racial injustice — to which Americans today are generally familiar and sympathetic — with anti-Semitism and Jewish “otherness,” we develop a better understanding of Shylock. It is a pairing that brings out the hidden notes we miss in the original play, like balsamic vinegar intensifying the flavor of red berries.