When John Douglas Thompson let it be known he wanted to play Shylock, one of the most provocative starring roles in Shakespeare, that was all Arin Arbus needed to hear. Having directed Thompson in “Othello” and “Macbeth,” among other plays, Arbus counted the actor as a cherished fellow traveler. Now, she would be joining him in the most daring project yet in their stage collaborations.
That Thompson is Black and Shylock is Jewish adds rarely explored dimensions to “The Merchant of Venice,” which began its run at Shakespeare Theatre Company on March 22. The casting underlines an intriguing development that — intensified by the Black Lives Matter movement — has propelled American theaters into new investigations of racial and ethnic identity. Some of the most trenchant of these efforts, in fact, are occurring at the intersection of race and Judaism.
“I could clearly imagine John embodying the journey that character goes through, and so it was a very exciting idea to me,” Arbus said in an interview, adding that the challenge both thrilled and terrified her. “We went on a journey of exploration to try and figure out how to cast the rest of the play. And, you know, to explore what this play means to us now, with John in that role.”
That process is reflected in an array of innovative ventures tied to the portrayal of Jews in modern life, and in drama. And, more specifically, to an effort to enlighten theatergoers about the range of people across racial lines who call themselves Jewish.
At Washington’s Theater J, for instance, artistic director Adam Immerwahr recently launched Expanding the Canon, a program awarding $10,000 commissions plus $5,000 production grants to seven playwrights across North America who identify as Jews of color. That category includes multiethnic and multiracial Jews, as well as Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and western and central Asia.
In an entirely unscientific indication of how rich this line of inquiry is, Theater J, one of the nation’s leading Jewish theaters, has already received 70 submissions for the project.
Showcasing a Black Shylock and recruiting Jewish dramatists of color reveal the degree to which theaters see themselves as opening vistas of understanding — particularly vital at a time when hate crimes in this country are on the rise.
“In the last few years, with the racial reckoning in this country, we’ve been thinking about what Theater J’s obligations are to telling the accurate story of the multiethnic, multiracial tapestry of Judaism,” Immerwahr said.
“There are just not enough plays that are by and about the experience of racially and ethnically diverse Jews,” he added. “And I use that phrase specifically because when we talk about this group, we’re talking about Jews of color, who are also left out of what we call the ‘Ashke-normativity’ of Jewish culture.” (Ashke-normativity refers to the conventional centering of Eastern European-rooted, Ashkenazi Jewry as the mainstream of Jewish identity.)
Examining Jewishness has been a vital preoccupation of American theater for generations, from the early-20th-century traditions of Yiddish theater to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” to Joshua Harmon’s irreverently hip 2010s comedy “Bad Jews.” What feels ever more current are the new ways in which Jewish playwrights and performers are introducing a broader range of cultural experiences into the contemporary conversation. For instance, in Alex Edelman’s sublime solo show “Just for Us” — a sold-out smash at off-Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse — he hilariously illuminates the complex role Jewish people continue to occupy in America’s polarized society.
The New York-based comedian recounts in “Just for Us” his infiltration of a meeting of white nationalists in an apartment in Queens. They are only too happy to welcome him into the fold — until he admits the little wrinkle of his actual ethnicity. In a room rife with anti-Semitic invective, he is now pegged as an undesirable, someone not categorically White, which is news, sort of, to him. The “Just for Us” of the title therefore poses an existential challenge: Who exactly, Edelman seems to be asking, is this “us”?
“The show is not a think piece or anything,” Edelman said late one winter afternoon, sitting in a small West Village park in the drizzly cold. “The show is not about ‘if Jews are White.’ Personally, I think it’s about a gray area, where Jews are classically ‘other,’ in a way that this binary doesn’t serve.”
The preoccupations of “Just for Us,” directed by Adam Brace, cover Edelman’s childhood in an upper-middle-class Boston suburb, in a modern Orthodox home. He attended a formal Jewish day school, complete with Talmudic study. But Boston is not a shtetl, and the gentile world loomed large: Edelman provides an uproarious account of a holiday season when his mother, seeking to console a Christian friend who had lost several family members, staged a traditional Christmas dinner for her — to Edelman’s father’s utter outrage. (A funny payoff is the way his dad, a Harvard Medical School professor, eventually softened.)
“My comedy is very much informed by my Talmudic upbringing,” Edelman said. “My comedy is all about the gray space between the traditions and modernity.”
Efforts such as Theater J’s Expanding the Canon attempt to further enlarge the understanding of the diaspora. “We’re excited that the narrative of who expresses themselves as a Jew is expanding in the United States. It’s not changing, it’s expanding,” said Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative, an organization that supports research and issues grants with the aim of building “a truly multiracial, anti-racist Jewish community.”
“The more we can do across the diversity of Jews,” Kaufman said, “the more integrated is our identity as a Jewish community.”
Immerwahr consulted with the initiative and obtained funding from the Covenant Foundation, a group that advances Jewish education, for its one-of-a-kind Jews of color playwriting program. The commissions will begin later this year with a beit midrash, or study period, for the writers, spearheaded by Sabrina Sojourner — herself a Jew of color who serves as a Rockville, Md.-based community chaplain promoting diversity and inclusion among Jewish people.
“At the beginning, we’re going to say we want to introduce you to the true landscape of Jewishness,” Immerwahr said, discussing the orientation for the playwrights. “We imagine some of them will come from very educated religious backgrounds, and some of them might have more tenuous connections to their Jewishness. So this is giving them some of the areas they could explore in their plays. And then gradually as they start to discover what they want to write about, we’ll give them the resources to follow their own individual paths.”
The hope, Immerwahr added, “is that many of these plays will end up in subsequent seasons on both our stage and also other stages around the country and the world.” In this regard, Theater J, an arm of the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, becomes a conduit both for new avenues for thinking about Jewish identity and how audiences digest them.
“The power of this project,” said Dava Schub, the DCJCC’s chief executive, “is not just in the ability to center stories of Jews of color on the stage, but also to shine a light on new storytellers and say, ‘It’s not just about the story, it’s also about the storyteller.’ ”
The myriad paths these storytellers might take are foreshadowed in Arbus and Thompson’s choice to investigate Shylock as a Black man. Arbus noted that it is not pure imagination to think of Shylock as a man of color. In fact, she said, the well-known Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro told her that “most of the Jews in England in Shakespeare’s time would have come from North Africa.”
For Thompson, the role of outsider did not seem so elusive.
“I look at Shylock as a proxy for the other,” he said. “I don’t think Shakespeare knew a lot about Jewish people, but he was a humanist. He knew how to write the shape of a human being and give them a life.”
It is that aspect of a classic Jewish character that beguiled the actor — a quality that ultimately transcends race and ethnicity.
“The individual life is made significant just by the struggle,” Thompson said. “That’s it, that’s what I’m after. It’s the struggle.”
The Merchant of Venice Through April 24 at Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.
Just for Us Through April 30 at SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., New York. The show will move and continue its run, June 13-July 23, at Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow St., New York. justforusshow.com.