Written by frequent Folger production director, Aaron Posner, District Merchants is new take on The Merchant of Venice which seeks to tackle to elephant in the room: Shakespeare’s unforgiving and cruel and anti-semitic take on Shylock, the titular merchant.
Posner keeps the names, but shifts the action to Washington, DC and the time to the months just before and just after the Panic of 1873. He mostly keeps the original names, or else uses something very close (which sometimes seems jarring – especially the continued use of ‘Shylock’), but plays with race and ethnicity, making the majority of the non-Jewish characters black. This does create a more nuanced view of discrimination and prejudice (especially in the form of a young mixed race man who ‘passes’ as white), as does the addition of topics like the pogroms in Russia and war profiteering during the Civil War. Muddies the waters, those last two, though I’m not always sure to what end. I mean, I know to what end, but I guess that I’m not sure if it really succeeded.
But the play does succeed, sometimes, in spite of itself. But The Merchant of Venice, when it succeeds, does so in spite of itself, does it not? And, as a DC resident, references to places like Eastern Market made me smile with pride/recognition.