On a latest weekend, I eagerly got down to see two new productions that prominently heart Blackness: the director Arin Arbus’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “Black No Extra,” a brand new musical with a starry inventive workforce that was impressed by a satirical 1931 novel about race in America.
“The Service provider of Venice,” a Theater for a New Viewers manufacturing on the Polonsky Shakespeare Heart in Brooklyn, got here first. Right here, Arbus strong-arms up to date politics into the work, which she locations in a modern-day setting. The stress between Arbus’s course and the textual content is most obvious in a scene by which Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, in arguing he needs to be repaid after a service provider defaults on a mortgage, cites legal guidelines in regards to the enslaved:
You could have amongst you a lot a bought slave
Which, like your asses and your canine and mules,
You employ in abject and in slavish components
Since you purchased them. Shall I say to you
‘Allow them to be free, marry them to your heirs.
Why sweat they beneath burdens?’
On this race-conscious manufacturing, the speech takes on a special which means. Because the actor taking part in Shylock is John Douglas Thompson, Shylock’s Jewish id is subordinated to a different one: a Black id.
Whereas “Service provider” displays our present racial politics and sensibilities by means of the director’s imaginative and prescient, “Black No More,” the New Group’s musical, depends on the key methods by which its script deviates from the unique novel. Each reveals operate nearly as reactionary works of criticism, “Service provider” critiquing Shakespeare’s textual content and “Black No Extra” critiquing the grim satire of the novel. And although every manufacturing brings artwork from the previous to the current, generally in sensible methods, the antiquated plots, themes and characters aren’t at all times simple to recontextualize. The previous pushes again.
On this “Service provider,” Antonio, the title character, and Bassanio, one of the best pal to whom he gives his fortune and really almost his life, are lovers. The ladies — the heiress Portia, her maid Nerissa and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica — are married in the long run, as is usually the rule in Shakespeare’s comedies, however are sad and sensible to their husbands’ misogyny and different faults. After which Shylock and his daughter (and Shylock’s Jewish pal Tubal) are all Black, which brings within the historical past of racial discrimination, slavery and prejudice.