‘District Merchants’ blows the cobwebs off Shakespeare

Jerome Davis and Gary Wayne Barker star in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘District Merchants.’ Photo: Eric Woolsey

BY JUDITH NEWMARK, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“I’m not a genius,” playwright and director Aaron Posner insists. “But I get to work with geniuses all the time.”

There’s probably something wrong with both parts of that remark. 

In the first place, plenty of people would gladly bestow a “genius” label on the prolific, award-laden theater artist. 

In the second place, can he really work with them? What if those geniuses — William Shakespeare, say, or Anton Chekhov — are long dead?

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“Life Sucks!,” Posner’s updated adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” closed the New Jewish Theatre’s previous season. Now his riff on “The Merchant of Venice,” “District Merchants,” is set to open there Jan. 24. The drama is directed by Jacqueline Thompson, who received the St. Louis Theater Circle’s 2018 award for outstanding actress in a drama for her performance in the NJT’s production of “Intimate Apparel.”

Disrupting traditional conventions of time and place, “Life Sucks!” is set in contemporary America, while  “District Merchants” takes place in Washington just after the Civil War. It centers on conflicts among businessmen who belong to two different, marginalized groups: Some are Jewish, some African American.

Obviously, both plays were written without any contribution from the original authors. It was a different story when Posner, one of today’s most prominent adaptors of literary works for the theater, turned Chaim Potok’s novels of the Orthodox Jewish life, “The Chosen” and “I Am Asher Lev,” into stage vehicles. Posner and Potok, who died in 2002, collaborated on both adaptations, now popular in their own rights. (In St. Louis, they’ve been performed by troupes including the NJT and Mustard Seed Theatre.) 

“What a pleasure that (collaboration) was,” Posner recalled. 

But if collaboration isn’t possible, that can be OK, too. 

“I am a great believer in imagination — and in reimagination. That’s essential to being human,” said Posner, 54, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with his wife, actress Erin Weaver, and their daughter Maisie, 7. “We see ourselves in stories, and we want to engage with them, to learn more about ourselves and other people.” 

But, he suspects, that’s easier if the characters aren’t draped in veils of old-fashioned dignity.

Posner’s most-performed play underscores the point: It’s his riff on Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” “Stupid F—ing Bird.” The name, he has explained, started as a joke, then stuck. 

Chekhov has influenced more than a century of playwrights and performers and, in his own day, was considered breathtakingly modern. But staid productions have allowed his work to molder under a guise of propriety and bustles, Posner says. He would like audiences to enjoy those plays just as their ancestors did, cooled and delighted by a gust of fresh theatrical air.

The same thing holds true for Shakespeare, Posner believes. After he graduated from Northwestern University, Posner moved from the home of his youth in Eugene, Ore., to Philadelphia, where he and friends cofounded the Arden Theatre. It seemed to them like a great town for theater, he recalled, and they weren’t wrong: The Arden, named for Shakespeare’s fictional forest, continues to flourish.

Over time, Posner built his own reputation. 

“I split my time between writing and directing,” he said, with a specialty in directing the plays of Shakespeare.  But he refused, more than once, to direct “The Merchant of Venice.” 

As a Jew, he said, he couldn’t figure out how to approach a play so problematic that no less a Shakespeare authority than Yale University’s Harold Bloom contends “it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play.” 

Nevertheless, Bloom loves the complex, richly theatrical character at the heart of “Merchant,” the Jewish moneylender Shylock. 

Shylock’s most famous speech is probably the one asserting his, and his people’s, humanity: 

“Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us do we not bleed? … If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

It’s a great speech. Posner, however, found his way in through a different Shylock speech, the one about slavery.

Venice, a great and sophisticated state during the Renaissance, built its economy on slaves, a point that Shylock zeroes in on. 

“You have among you many a purchased slave,” Shylock charges, acidly urging his judges to give their slaves delicious food, soft beds and, perhaps, the hands of their aristocratic daughters. No? Well, who’s merciful now?

There it was, Posner realized, a fresh, and distinctly American, window on “Merchant.” Of course African Americans lived in Washington during Reconstruction, among them a middle class. Posner did research and learned that there was also “a small, influential Jewish community of several hundred families” in the capital at that time who were businessmen.

With that in mind, he wrote “District Merchants,” a play that NJT artistic director Edward Coffield describes as “an uneasy comedy.” (Shakespeare’s “Merchant” counts among his comedies, a designation that may be accurate but nevertheless troubles many students today.) 

In Posner’s play, the prosperous Jewish businessman Shylock (portrayed here by Gary Wayne Barker) makes a brutal deal with a successful black businessman, Antoine (J. Samuel Davis). In Shakespeare, that character is Antonio, the merchant of the title. Antoine ultimately is saved from disaster by a brilliant white woman, Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker), who’s romantically involved with Antoine’s dear friend Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White). Benjamin is African American but he “passes” and chooses to do so.     

“There is no privileged class in ‘District Merchants,’ ” Posner points out. 

Noting that none of the characters are white, Protestant men, the vested class in 19th century America, he said he was particularly interested in “the perspective of those not at the center of power, and their complicated relationships.” 

This is almost certainly not Shakespeare’s concern in “The Merchant of Venice,” a point Posner concedes with a laugh. He’s not Chekhov or Shakespeare, and he doesn’t fool anyone about that. He does want today’s audiences and theater artists to continue to interact with memorable classic characters, intellectually and emotionally, and participate in their stories.

Besides, Posner adds cheerfully, he’s not the first one to work this way. 

“Shakespeare,” he observes, “stole everything.”