Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Letter to a Superintendent

Irving Independent School District Superintendent Parra with a student who built a rocket arsenal but does not have an Islamic name so it's all good...

For background, here is what happened to 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed in school this week. Click here.

and now an open letter...

Jose L. Parra, Superintendent
Irving Independent School District
2621 W. Airport Freeway
Irving, TX 75062

RE: Ahmed Mohamed

Dear Superintendent,

On your district's website, there is a very nice photograph of you with a young man I presume is a student in your district. You are shown admiring an electronics project at a science fair, with a student wearing a shirt and tie talking to you about his invention. You are holding what looks like a battery or perhaps a circuit box. The project involves model rockets. This seems like an environment where Ahmed Mohamed would thrive and be celebrated.

Your district has made national news today with the story of his treatment at MacArthur High on Monday of this week. It is too late to avert a profoundly awful experience and a painful stain on Irving's reputation, but the process of apologizing and making amends to this student and his family is important not only for your district but for our country as a whole.

This is about a couple of things. First and foremost, this is about stigmatizing Islam. This situation would have been handled differently if this boy had been named George or Esteban. Educators must take a lead in breaking the hateful assumption that anyone who observes the muslim faith is inherently suspicious or more inclined toward terrorism.

Secondly, we must vindicate reason. I have read every account I can find about this incident and cannot locate a single observation indicating anything that sounds suspicious. The child designed and executed a home-made clock and brought it to his school where he might have expected his teachers to praise his ingenuity - perhaps send him to a science fair like the one in that photograph of you.
Instead, teachers and police responded irrationally, and the young Mr. Mohamed has been given a painful practicum in cultural ignorance.

This is now national news and there has to be a correction that affirms an appreciation for cultural diversity, acceptance of muslims as part of the American fabric, and celebrates a child's scientific interest. I beg you, let us be reading about that by the end of the week.

Warm regards,

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Salt Lake Fringe report

I applied to the Great Salt Lake Fringe on behalf of Theatre Dojo, and did so very much on a lark. Months ago I was looking up various performing arts festivals where Randy Granger and I might perform together and came across the early website for what would be the inaugural of a brand new fringe festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Fringe festivals, the eldest and most famous taking place in Ediburgh, Scotland, are festivals for low-budget, no-frills, usually new and experimental works in the performing arts. There are fringe festivals all over the world and a great many in the United States. The first that come to mind are international annual fringes in San Diego, New York, and Orlando. This summer, a determined group of students and faculty from Westminster College and other local artists were banding together to launch a fringe in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City. I didn't even ask Randy about it, I just applied.

We got a slot and decided this would be an opportunity to try out one of our prospective new works, a play called Killing Buddha, in front of an audience in an abridged form. Salt Lake City is a 12-16 hour drive from southern New Mexico, and Randy had booked a western tour anyway. As it happened, the festival opened just days after we closed Merchant of Venice in El Paso (more about that project here and here.)

Killing Buddha was inspired in part by our performances of An Iliad. Randy Granger had turned the unscripted musician into a distinct character, and our relationship in performing that play was intriguing enough that we wanted to see if the same characters from that play might tell other stories. At the top of this play, the same "Poet" character from that play and the Musician are eating together, the Poet recalls a Pali food blessing, and this spirals into a retelling of a very old folk tale from early Buddhist scripture about a serial killer who seeks forgiveness and repentance.

Buddhism is not something I've addressed directly in my work, in part because I wanted to take some time with how I address it. It is very easy for me to slip into "dharma talk" mode that doesn't work well for a theatre piece; and I did not wish to appear to be proselytizing. In addition to that, I wanted to approach the Buddha as a historical, and human, subject. I did not want to portray him as he is usually portrayed in folklore and scripture.

Since this is our own script, we also had the chance to play some more with the characters, which we can't really do when we perform An Iliad.  In Killing Buddha, our interaction is more playful. Randy speaks and sings. We even sing together.

Indeed, devout Buddhists might take issue with this play. It depicts the historical Buddha as a person who doesn't always know what he's doing or how a situation is going to play out; and it presents the journey of Angulimala (the killer who becomes a Buddhist monk) as an enlightenment story parallelling Buddha's. The title is a reference to a familiar aphorism from zen tradition: If you find Buddha, kill him. This is one detail that will be clarified a bit in subsequent drafts.

Because of Randy's touring schedule and Merchant requiring more of me than I anticipated, I was still working on the script the week before the festival and we never got a chance to rehearse before meeting up in SLC. Our living situation was also uncertain, when our housing arrangements fell through at the last minute. We really didn't have the budget for a hotel stay. We actually reserved a camp site at a KOA in Springville, an hour away from the festival (a location in Salt Lake City was already booked up), but in the last few days a local actor (and volunteer at the festival) and his roommates agreed to put us up. 

Last Wednesday, Randy and I showed up for our scheduled 2-hour tech rehearsal. A wonderful young woman named Macy showed us to our space, which was (in keeping with the fringe aesthetic) the loading dock of an old department store. Perfect for our show and our style. Macy watched Randy and me engage in our very first joint rehearsal of our show and designed some lighting cues based on what she saw - which she did with enormously good taste and creativity. Meanwhile, Randy tried out numerous instruments in the space - it really was an old loading dock, a brick box with a concrete floor. I found a few ways to bring the character and the acoustics of the room into the play. It felt all right.

Randy warming up in our space at the Great Salt Lake Fringe

We were pretty scared when we gave our first public performance on Thursday evening. The crowd was small and very supportive. Randy and I are quite comfortable performing together, so we got through it fine and learned a few lessons. Friday night was a bit larger and we learned more. We heard rumors there was a buzz about our show, which felt nice. Saturday and Sunday were full or close to it, and despite some mistakes and some flaws in my script, the overall intent and potential of the piece came through and the audience response was tremendous. We had feedback forms which several people filled out, offering compliments and also constructive suggestions for how the play could be improved.

Randy and I were also going about to see performances and enjoy the visual art exhibit downstairs. There were 60 artists or groups offering 200 performances in six venues, either at the department store on Highland Drive or on the Westminster campus up the hill. One woman we met, who came to see our show twice, caught 22 shows over the four days of the festival; and she said that cost her much less than it cost for her to see one show on Broadway last year.

By Sunday, we were pretty tired. Our performance was fine though I felt exhausted and off. Still, for the second night in a row, we received a most generous standing ovation. We hurriedly struck our show (that's how it goes at a fringe, break it down in 15 minutes so the next act can move in). And one of the volunteers met us offstage saying, "You should come outside right now."

What was happening outside was a brief award ceremony. We hadn't heard anything about awards. But we were announced as the winners of the "Fringe Pick" award, a sort of "best of fest" award conferred by the staff and board of the festival. What it means for us is that we automatically have a slot at next year's festival without having to pay fees. Randy and I were thrilled, as we really enjoyed our time at the festival and in the city, and were already talking about coming back next year.

Meanwhile, Killing Buddha is informally set to play in Las Cruces in February. Between now and then I'll be busy teaching at CMI and rehearsing a new play by Mark Medoff (which will play at the Rio Grande Theatre in Las Cruces in October). But Killing Buddha, in a slightly longer and much improved version, will open in February; and Randy and I have other works in gestation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I Only Teach Don't-Know

Here is about a minute of a talk I gave on camera for Adam Tebbe's independent documentary about zen in the United States. Adam traveled around the U.S. trying to hit some of the smaller sanghas as well as major ones.

I sat down with him in Las Cruces during his New Mexico leg.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Phones in the Wings

Merchant dressing room. Photo taken with my phone.

There is much chatter in theatre-related media about the behavior of audiences lately.

On Broadway, a man jumped onto a stage and attempted to plug his phone into an outlet on the set. (To his chagrin, the outlet was not real, and if he thought being scolded by security was embarrassing, how he must have felt the next day when the wrath of the internet fell on him.) In a separate incident, Patti Lupone chewed out a patron from the stage because he was "texting" during the performance.

Funny articles are appearing here and there about an allegedly growing sense of anger harbored by actors toward their audience.  That seems silly. There are so many old stories about actors intervening in audience behavior. There's a famous story about John Gielgud stepping to the footlights and addressing a couple of old ladies who were being a bit loud and intoning "" at them, and lots of others. Trinity Rep's audiences have known for many years that the actors will not hesitate to engage in direct interaction with patrons.

When I played Tybalt in Firenze, patrons were served alcohol and aperativi before the show and one night we had a couple of young women rather obnoxiously drunk on a blanket in front of our playing area, one of whom was particularly distracting. After being stabbed in the neck by Romeo, I made sure to lurch forward and die in her lap.

These war stories involving patrons are fun, but meanwhile I keep noticing that backstage behavior seems to be changing, too. Technology is rapidly changing social behaviors and this is going on backstage as well as in the house.

I don't know how it is on Equity stages since I'm no longer in that realm, but where I've worked over the last couple of years actors and crew seem more wedded to their phones even while the show is taking place. In a dressing room, I don't care: look at a magazine, shut your eyes, speed through lines, play Trivia Crack, whatever you do. Dressing room or green room is the right place for that, as long as you can hear what's going on onstage and be ready to do your job. I'm talking about the wings.

At Unto These Hills last year, I would see actors produce their phones from pockets of their costumes and check their screens while walking from one side to another. During one performance, an actor's phone started to ring - in his pocket, onstage. This was the first show where I noticed crew members frequently looking at phones and iPads while a show was going on. They never missed a beat from what I could tell. Aside from the phone that rang in that actor's pocket, the behavior didn't appear to affect what happened onstage.

Or did it? That's the thing about live theatre. The energy and the awareness of the performers (and I include backstage crew in their own way) makes a difference in imperceptible as well as obvious ways. Just as, at a sacrament, when the officiant's attention is elsewhere or divided, you can feel it. You might not put your finger on it but something is off. Zen Master Seung Sahn would have made a splendid theatre director: "When you do something," I can hear him say, "Do it 100 percent!"

Yoshi Oida talks about his preference to be in the wings or even behind the house during performances, in order to pay attention to the audience's responses and mood. (He speaks of "smelling" the audience.) At the Black Box Theatre, where I've been doing most of my work in Las Cruces, there is almost no wing space but there are ways to stay connected with what's happening. Live theatre is social.

We are performing Merchant of Venice in an old proscenium house where there is limited wing space - and several of the younger performers hang out there because the dressing rooms are hot and muggy. And they've got their phones going. We could probably retire the traditional blue clip lamps that light our way, as there is enough light from the phones.

Just so I'm not misunderstood: I don't necessarily equate use of phones with antisocial behavior. I have an iPhone myself and it is handy to have this little computer close by. I communicate with it, read news articles on it, and play chess on it. This is not a curmudgeonly rant about cell phones.

What this is about is different behaviors for different spaces. In this case, green room behaviors spilling into the wings. I was at Trinity before iPhones were a thing. Very good, attentive actors would recreate in the green room during shows. They'd pay attention to the monitor while flipping through a book, relaxing on a sofa, maybe even play a hand of Solitaire. These are ways to decompress during a long show. Card games were a favorite pastime. So were pranks.

When you stepped from the green room into the wings, however, different behaviors kicked in. No one played Solitaire or read People magazine in the wings. The wings were a space for silence, preparation, and full attention on the performance.  No one had to explain this. There were things you did in the green room and things you did in the wings.

The other night, curtain call was nearly delayed. Several actors were in the dressing room. Some on their phones, some just chatting, as you do. It's hard to hear in there - all we have is a crappy baby monitor that the stage manager sometimes forgets to turn on. Somehow or other, a few of the actors lost touch with what was going on and suddenly they heard the audience applauding and scrambled madly to the wings.

No harm done. I'll just say this: expectations are changing. It's interesting to watch how fast that happens, and with seemingly no discussion.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

U.S. Internment Camps a Profitable Enterprise

The Artesia detention center here in New Mexico may have closed at the end of last year, but serious issues remain and they require action, particularly as it appears that the Obama Administration is in flagrant violation of international law – to say nothing of human decency.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is on record testifying to the U.S. Senate that detention policies to which asylum-seekers are subject are being used as “an aggressive deterrent strategy,” and he has made the same claim to the press. This is an open, and even boastful, violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

In These Times offers a fresh account of the conditions at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, which replaced Artesia. The author is an Arizona resident who did some volunteer legal-aid work at the center, named John Washington. By his and numerous other accounts the conditions which were the subject of much controversy in 2014 continue at the new center.

Just a few of the outstanding issues are:
  • Flagrant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention in the use of harsh detention policies as a deterrent to unauthorized immigration.
  • Fast-tracking of deportations endangering families with legitimate claims · Prohibitive bonds lead to extended periods of incarceration
  • Conditions within Dilley prompt many families to drop their claims, which is a violation of their right to seek asylum
  • Denials of due process, lack of access to legal representation and adequate translation
  • Reports of people being kettled in cabins with strangers and deprived of privacy and dignity
  • Harsh and punitive conditions at Border Patrol cells leading to illness and psychological distress for families including children
  • Dilley is an enterprise that derives profit from prolonged incarceration of these prisoners (and calling them prisoners is only honest). This creates a perverse incentive.

This is not an improvement over the conditions at Artesia. This is an obscenity that tarnishes any fabric of national honor. It cannot be ignored. How will we address it?

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Shylock, Part 2

Early Merchant rehearsal, scripts still in hand, pencils tucked in caps. With Darin Robert Cabot, left.

This continues from the previous post, which sets forth the Very Big Problem with The Merchant of Venice and my assignment to play Shylock. Click here to read that one.

The following is cobbled together from notes, journaling, and comments I've made for local interviews.

Shylock appears only in five scenes, and walks out of the play in Act IV Scene 1.

A personal "what if." I'm a third-generation Italian-American. My grandfather was a baby when the family came over. My grandfather experienced social prejudice against Italians, despite his service in World War II. My father saw a little. Me, very little. Obnoxious stereotypes prevail, of course, but I've not experienced direct oppression or abuse for my ethnic background. My grandfather stood a real risk of being punched in the face for being Italian; I've not experienced that, but I can imagine what that would be like. In the face of that, and with very little formal schooling (he quit after sixth grade), he became a successful businessman.

Thinking often of my grandfather, I've come to relate to Shylock as a second or third generation Venetian. Born there. Successful. Law abiding. Hard working. My Shylock is secular yet proud of his Jewish heritage. (My grandfather assimilated to WASP business culture but was very proud when I learned to speak and write some Italian.) Within the boundaries set against me (Shylock) I have built something for himself. Nonetheless, treated like a foreigner in my own land; I need permission to move about freely, live in a ghetto, and being spat on, kicked, mugged or scammed, is  part of daily life.

Shylock could certainly be played as a flat stereotype, but Shakespeare provides material for a more complex and contradictory - i.e. human - character. What was the playwright's intention?  Why write a speech like "Hath not a Jew eyes" yet write such an unjust conclusion for the character?

Clothing choices: Shylock is neatly dressed, what might be business casual in the imaginative time and space of our play. He occasionally wears a kippa but also wears a kufi-style hat.

I don't imagine my Shylock praying much in daily life, but he would have a mezuzah at the entrance to his home, he would go to synagogue every week, and he would see that Jessica is educated in Jewish history and religion.

Act I, Scene 3. We meet Shylock as he listens to Bassanio propose a loan. Antonio is the co-signer, yet he shows up only later, what's that about? It's a very awkward scene between three men.

Shylock's aside: "I hate him for he is Christian" and yet never, in soliloquy or dialogue, does Shylock seem to have a religious dispute. The "Christians" are the people who oppress him: not just as individuals but as a society. I have Cherokee friends who occasionally complain on Facebook about "unegs" - white people as a mass. Shylock has no beef with their god - though he remarks more than once on their hypocrisy. He is angrier that Antonio undermines his business. "He lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance with us here in Venice." Right, because that's one of the only ways he's allowed to make a living, and here comes Antonio imagining himself as a Zorro, paying off people's debts to save them from interest and undercutting what enterprise is permitted to Shylock.

(Antonio is like the capitalist who preaches about the free market but is happy with interventions that insulate the right people.)

The easy choice (and a bad one): Shylock is out for blood vengeance from the beginning, to "feed fat the ancient grudge." The proposal of a "pound of flesh" is a devious plot.

Another choice that is supported by the text: Shylock is as bitter as his aside indicates, but he embarks instead on a positive quest. The bid for friendship or at least acceptance is not a deception. It is also in his self-interest.

Shylock never seems religious in private or public, but he is quite proud of Jewish folklore and wisdom tales. "I would be friends with you and have your love," not a duplicitous statement but a genuine bid for acceptance. He has a captive audience because they want to borrow money from him. He tells a long story about Jacob shepherding his uncle's sheep - I play it as an attempt to reach Antonio, to amuse him and show that taking interest is an honest enterprise. Interestingly, the religious argument is presented by Antonio: Shylock talks about human enterprise; Antonio preaches divine providence.

I play the interest-free loan as a serious offer, the pound of flesh as truly a "merry sport," as I have acknowledged early in the scene that Antonio is a low-risk borrower. I don't think he'll default. The "pound of flesh" is a shared joke. The humor in the scene and the unusual loan are tactics for the larger objective of putting this personal conflict to rest. We might not become buddies but maybe the ill-treatment and undermining of my business will stop.

I leave happy. This, too, was a way to thrive.

Act II, Scene 5. Next time we see him, he is losing his servant to Bassanio - the very guy who just borrowed money and needed a co-signer because his own credit was so bad. The guy is like a money sieve, and now Launcelot wants to go work for him instead. Top of the scene, I'm teasing him, but letting him go.

This is the only scene we see Shylock interact with his daughter, Jessica. The Christians have invited him to dinner - he doesn't want to go, but feels he has to. His objective is building bridges, with the long goal of ending the conflict, established in the first act. We allow Shylock to be affectionate with his teenage daughter. He tells her to stay inside only after he hears there will be boys in masks partying in the streets; not unreasonable given their position in this society. He entrusts her with his keys and goes off to his diplomatic dinner date, hoping to build bridges.

Act III, Scene 1. Here is where it pivots; this is where Shylock changes. So much heartbreak has taken place offstage. Jessica ran off, taking a great deal of money and valuables with her. This scene is very tricky. His positive objective has fallen apart. While he was trying to engage Antonio and Bassanio, their friends made off with his daughter - he has been stabbed in the back.

"Why there there there there!" - this is an odd speech, and I have become a student of its disjointed thoughts and pivots. It is commonly believed the speech shows Shylock being more upset about the lost wealth than his daughter. This plays into the anti-Semitic stereotype. On the other hand - it is a pretty big chunk of money, and the ring she took (and pawned) had sentimental value to him - it is the only time he mentions his wife, Leah. (Who is - dead? Divorced? As an actor, I've answered that question for myself.) It doesn't seem to me Shylock is centrally focused on the loss of wealth - but the expense is not nothing, either.

Something I know about anger is that often the object we rant about to our friends is not what's really bothering us. It's easier to bitch about the money than to wail, "Why did she leave?" Because if you go there all you can do is cry. It seems natural to me to read "two thousand ducats in that - and other precious, precious jewels" as a dichotomy, referring to a material loss and the loss of a beloved daughter.

He also says "The curse never fell on our nation til now - I never felt it til now." That's interesting. Previously he has described being spat upon and kicked and tormented in other ways. Historically, he would have been forced to live in a ghetto, subject to curfew, forced to wear identifying clothing. But he says that only now does he feel the curse on his nation - or, as I understand it, the weight of oppression. Losing Jessica is a bigger blow to him than all the previous mistreatment.

It seems like the right way to play the speech, but making it clear is a challenge, and I'm playing against a widespread interpretation of that speech.

It's also important to show human pain because it contrasts with the way Solanio and Salerio have been talking about him in a previous scene, mocking Shylock as running about screaming "My ducats!!" It is important, next time we actually see Shylock, to see him not as the rumor presents him, but as a man in pain, to see a grieving father rather than some greedy moneylender.

Here we have the full-throated "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, which is in prose and not in verse. It's eloquent in its way but not pretty. It describes the injustice and marks the point where Shylock begins to focus on revenge. Anger is not good for ethical judgment. The opposite of injustice is justice, but Shylock fixates on revenge. Such is the human condition.

Anger is also a hook through the nose, as we see when Tubal stokes Shylock's anger to a boiling point, for reasons that are not spelled out in the text.

This is the scene where we learn, as does Shylock, that Antonio may indeed be unable to pay back the loan, and suddenly that "pound of flesh" clause isn't a joke, and Shylock is contemplating something unthinkable.

Interesting detail: he tells Tubal to get the arresting officer and meet him at their synagogue. No reason is given. It could be a place where they'd have privacy. Fleeting thoughts about how, in the United States, African-American churches have been safe havens to gather and plan insurrections against racist institutions....

Act III, Scene 3. We play this as if there had been an attempt at mediation offstage. Shylock is having none of it. "Talk not to me of mercy." He says over and over again, "I will have my bond." It's a joke among the cast. "I will have my -- line?" The line is a blunt instrument and he just smacks Antonio with it over and over again. It couldn't be more clear that Shylock has committed himself to a course of action and is insulating himself against changing his mind. It is really a grandiose kind of revenge: not only that Antonio suffer physically, but the state will uphold it, in public and in front of all the people who have tormented Shylock.

Only a very, very angry person could believe this would work out.

Act IV, Scene 1. The court scene. Shylock turns up believing the law upholds his claim. The Duke tries to talk him down, and he is offered three times the money he is owed. He refuses it. Portia, disguised as the hotshot attorney from out of town, declares Shylock the winner of case but offers him one last chance to take justice rather than revenge. "Take thrice they money. Bid me tear the bond." Shylock does not turn back: he says no.

This is a very well-written scene. It's a great courtroom scene. The legal argument is exciting and the stakes are undoubtedly very high. The Duke has yielded his power as judge to a stranger from out of town - and the presiding judge actually grants that Shylock is legally entitled to his revenge. Antonio must prepare to die, and says his goodbyes as Shylock waits with a knife in his hand. It's an amazing scene already, and then at the last second Portia finds the legal loophole.

Sometimes when I play this scene, there is a wave of relief at this point. A sense that perhaps I have a way out of doing this thing, a chance to walk this back and keep face, my point having been made, now let's settle this. But it is now too late. Portia has me over a barrel and I soon realize that, of course, the laws are set up to defend challenges to the existing social relations. I tried to make the court of law a field of class struggle, and the class structure predictably defended itself and crushed me. Within three minutes, Antonio is dictating terms, including that, in return for the "favor" of having his property stripped from him, Shylock also lose his cultural identity: "...that he presently become a Christian." And the Duke says "He shall do this" or else face the death penalty. Shylock has just been stripped more naked than naked - and from the perspective of the play's "good guys," this is a happy ending.

Theatre artists far more august and famous than me have struggled with how to portray this moment. Olivier did this famous long wail after he exited the court. (I've even read that he injured his throat doing it during his run onstage.) In the 2004 film by Michael Radford, in which Al Pacino played Shylock, as he exits the courtroom the crowd tears off his headcovering and spits upon him. Our production is so bare bones, we have no crowd. The final moment of subjugation passes silently between Shylock and Antonio, in a physical gesture as Shylock prepares himself to depart the court. For much of the play, I have alternated between the posture of a confident man and a beaten dog. In this last transition from dog to man Shylock walks out of the play.

Tomorrow, we'll have our first audience, and we'll see if any of this actually plays.

Shylock, Part 1

Yours truly, playing Shylock

This has been a tough assignment.

Back in January, a backyard meeting took place in Las Cruces among theatre artists in Las Cruces. Most of us had masters degrees, and had worked professionally in theatre; one was a recent graduate of New Mexico State who has been producing shows in Cruces and El Paso. This initial meeting led to a proposal for a professional repertory theatre, which would be launched with a bare-bones production of a Shakespeare play. After weighing several plays, the group selected one of the "problem plays," The Merchant of Venice.

The reason I count it among the problem plays is not just that this "comedy" is very dark, but that it actually presents a theatrical problem. Merchant is a play with a big fat problem sitting squarely on top of it, and the problem can be presented in the single word injustice.

Why this play?

It has an appealing courtship story with a female character, Portia, who is held fast to a preposterous game set up by her deceased father. She can only marry a suitor who solves a riddle and correctly chooses among three caskets made respectively of gold, silver, and lead. We later find out that Portia has an agile mind, an adventurous spirit who is not above laying prankish traps of her own. She is one of Shakespeare's better roles for women (noting that in Shakespeare's time, the role would have been played by a man). The vanities of the well-born suitors who fail the riddle and the exuberant audacity of Bassanio in winning her, the tale of Portia's ring, the nature of Bassanio's friendship with Antonio and how it will change as Bassanio weds (Antonio is apparently a bachelor), all make for a good play. There is, however, the Very Big Problem.

Merchant is best known for its other storyline, the one involving Shylock the Jewish moneylender. When Bassanio decides to attempt the riddle and win Portia, he needs to borrow money. His wealthy merchant friend, Antonio, is short on cash so they borrow the money from Shylock in a very awkward scene exposing bitter history between them. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, and you spit on my Jewish now appears you need my help!"  It is very clear that Shylock, and Jews generally, are treated very badly here. Historically, Jews in Venice lived in a ghetto and were prohibited from most economic activity; lending money at interest was one avenue allowed to them, trafficking in the hypocrisy of a Christian society that openly denounced usury while secretly depending on credit. Jews were simultaneously reviled and essential to the economy.

The play is regarded by many as a libel against Jews. Shylock proposes that instead of interest, the penalty for defaulting on the loan be "a pound of your fair flesh," Antonio goes for it, and when Antonio is unable to pay on time, Shylock takes him to court, dagger in hand, demanding his pound of flesh. The law appears to back Shylock's claim and he comes very close to killing Antonio until a loophole is found, the case is dismissed, and Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.

The injustice sits there like a repulsive, evil toad. The "good guys" in this "comedy" are openly anti-semitic throughout the play and their cruelty is unanswered. On the other hand, when Shylock attempts to use the law and the court to his own advantage (admittedly, for revenge more than justice), the system defends itself and the walls topple on top of Shylock. At no point are the "good guys" called to account for their hatred of Jews, but Shylock is stripped of his property and even his religious identity, slinking from the courtroom in defeat as the Christians cheer.

If you play it strictly as comedy, the story of Shylock is the story of an uppity minority who tries to pull a caper on the white Christian hero and gets his comeuppance. The ugliness of this plot overshadows the play as a whole. 

Our premise was: can we perform the play in such a way that that unconscious injustice is visible to the audience? Can we tell this story and make it plain that the "good guys" cannot see the injustice on which their society is based? This, in my view, would show a contemporary audience something about what we are now - at a time that #BlackLivesMatter is pointing out injustices that have remained invisible to the dominant culture, even while we celebrate the vindication of marriage rights for homosexuals.

Playing it as a drama, then, Shylock can be seen as an angry man reacting to systemic injustice. Perhaps. Shakespeare offers some material to support this interpretation, but not much. 

Another question: in attempting the latter interpretation, are we honoring the playwright's intention, or distorting it? Is this, in fact, an honest project in the first place?

In Part 2, I'll talk about my own struggle with this problem as the actor playing Shylock.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

On the Declaration of Independence, some Founding Contradictions, and Our Prospects

The Fourth of July has come around again, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

For many the 4th is just a day for beer and grilled meat, perhaps some horseplay with loud explosives, and ostentatious displays of self-righteous patriotism.

The Declaration of Independence, as a document, is an outstanding piece of Enlightenment era rhetoric. Still, I grow wearier and wearier of the non-critical and indeed mythical retelling of our history. The politics of the independence movement, the "patriot" cause, the revolution itself and our progress as a nation are complex. It would be a tremendous gift to human progress and the prospect of liberty if we could accept the context of the day we celebrate.

The bold declaration of human equality is stirring even if its author and his cohort did not live up to it in their governance. By the time the Continental Congress was convened in 1774 there was most certainly a class hierarchy in society with pronounced inequalities in wealth and property. Those we call the 'founders' were an elite that made sure independence and revolution did not lead to actual democracy in the new republic.

In any reckoning of the American revolution, the Federalist Paper #10 authored by James Madison is required reading alongside the Declaration. On the one hand, the Declaration declares almost lyrically that government is to be an instrument for popular power (by which they secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Madison, in straightforward if less beautiful prose, asserts a different function for a government: to protect property and wealth from the "leveling tendencies" of popular power. It was an argument for oligarchy - the preservation of power for a small group of wealthy males belonging to the right social class.

One should not look back on the 18th century with the mind of the 21st and expect too much of the former epoch. Still, the conflict between democracy (when poor people have power) and plutocracy (when the rich have power and the poor do not) dates as far back as Aristotle's Politics.

Still, the Declaration provides a rationale in the 21st century for continued struggle, to refuse to be shamed into silence on matters of injustice, to acknowledge contradictions and envision their resolution, up to and including radical transformation of existing institutions:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

When that process is led from below, not from an aristocracy but by a mobilization of strong, independent and politicized working people, there is room for the American story to take a new turn even now.