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These are not the sins of the flesh that compose a modern-day Washington scandal.
As a playwright, Aaron Posner has adapted two Chaim Potok novels; his third Anton Chekhov rewrite, No Sisters, is set to debut at Studio Theatre next spring. He’s also directed more Shakespeare at the Folger Theatre than anyone else in the last 15 years.
District Merchants, which he wrote but did not direct, is his gloss on the famously anti-Semitic-or-is-it comedy The Merchant of Venice, transplanted to Reconstruction-era D.C. Two-thirds of the future Chocolate City’s population of 130,000 is white; the rest, “Negro peoples,” as Shylock (Matthew Boston), the show’s traditionally merciless usurer, tells us. He and Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black merchant, differ on which half of that racial binary the city’s 1,500 Jews belong to. But these two prosperous men are united in sin: Both profited from the slave trade—no mere pound of flesh, but untold tons of it.
Posner has whittled the cast to eight and rejiggered some relationships to accommodate the reduction. Curiously, white (Christian) hegemony—privilege, we call it now—is embodied only in the form of a woman, the kind-but-clueless heiress Portia (Maren Bush). The show’s only non-Jewish white dude, Lorenzo, isn’t a man of influence, but a petty crook. (Interestingly, Lorenzo is the only character whose race is not specified in Posner’s script. William Vaughan plays him as a white southerner.)
Everyone gets a soliloquy. This Shylock was brought to the U.S. by his father, fleeing pogroms in the Ukraine. Antoine is the son of a slave who won his freedom through exemplary service in the United States Navy in the War of 1812. “You can think of me as an opportunistic philanthropist, or a philanthropic opportunist,” he reasons. He will help his people, but he’s going to take his cut.
His friend Bassanio (Seth Rue) marvels that “my father literally owned my mother and me” but freed them in his will. Bassanio is passing as white—a secret he fears will doom his courtship of Portia. She in turn masquerades as a man to study law and complains to her servant Nessa (Celeste Jones) that one of her many suitors is “just so… black,” sounding like the girl speaking at the top of “Baby Got Back.” Jones has one of the piece’s most heartfelt monologues, all about her kind-but-condescending boss’s refusal to get woke.
Not all of the show’s trio of romances resolve as neatly as in Shakespeare’s version. But they’re all from the comic half of this comedy, the part no one remembers. We’re really here to see Shylock demand his bodily collateral from Antoine after he defaults on a loan, in this case due to the market crash of 1873. Tony Cisek’s set features a trio of Greek columns, including a toppled one that is pulled back upright just before Shylock hauls Antoine into court, as though Reconstruction itself hangs on the resolution of their gruesome contract.
It’s a tangy stew, all right. But the show’s mighty efforts to reckon with centuries of antisemitism and the fallout of slavery while persuading us to invest in its romantic couplings create a tonal variation that can be maddening. To compare District Merchants to Woolly Mammoth’s concurrent production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon—another self-referential update of an archaic interracial romance, dating from 1859—is instructive: An Octoroon has an energy and a focus that Posner’s thoughtful remix never approaches.
The company is marvelous, though, led by Boston’s haunted Shylock. Recalling the life of prejudice to which he’s been subjected, Boston fixes his stare on a member of the audience, asks the person’s name, then turns that name an epithet, spitting as speaks. (I was the target of this stunt on the night I attended.) On the sunnier end of the spectrum, Akeem Davis is a bolt of joy each time he bounds onto the stage as Lancelot, the servant who doesn’t know he’s as smart as anyone in the room. Posner sometimes gives his purely comic characters too much rope, but Davis leaves you wanting more of him. As Portia, Bush performs a wordless symphony of reaction, drawn out to what must be at least 60 seconds, when Bassanio reveals his mixed parentage. She’s equally strong in the climactic trial scene, in reverse-drag as Antoine’s counsel, arguing that Shylock’s contract with him is unenforceable. To say how Posner has updated her defense of Antoine would be telling, but it’s one of the moments when the show transcends mere novelty.
There are many thrilling moments like this. But in total the effect stubbornly remains what Portia argued in the 425-year-old original version that Shylock’s extraction of his pound of flesh must be: Bloodless.
Through July 3. 201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$75. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.