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The Merchant of Venice is listed as a comedy, but known as a “problem play,” in which the central problem is racism. In a company whose motto is “Love is the strongest choice,” it has proven very difficult to capture racial and religious hatred of the most brutal and unrelenting nature.
As an actor playing one of the most vicious characters in the piece, I’ve been particularly challenged in three ways:
I don’t want the audience, specifically my family and friends, to associate me with this behavior. This is a horrible failure for me as an actor, because of course we’re not supposed to care about what the audience thinks of us at all; but here at Sweet Tea, the audience is all around us. We speak to them, make eye contact, and engage. It’s hard not to care, because it’s impossible to block out.
I don’t want my cast mates to think I’m enjoying this behavior, or that I’m good at it. We bring ideas and choices to rehearsal every day. But with this piece, I worry that an idea I bring will be considered too outrageous, too upsetting, too far. There’s little worse than the look on a scene partner’s face that says, “I can’t believe she went there.” It’s also terribly difficult to look someone you like and respect in the eye while spitting in their face and treating them like an animal.
I don’t want the hate to follow me home. In order to prepare a role, we spend hours with the text – not just memorizing it, but analyzing every word. We work on posture and gesture and gait and mannerisms. We develop ideas about how our characters understand and interact with the world. In order to do that for The Merchant of Venice, I have to spend a lot of time at home with the darkest, angriest, most feared and fearful thoughts. It’s the most unpleasant work I’ve done.
But plays express things that need expressing, and The Merchant of Venice is frighteningly relevant to today’s world. In preparing this role I’ve watched hours of YouTube footage of Trump rallies and MRA events, and the language, adjusted to the modern day, is identical. We are still living in this world; the play is a mirror. But that won’t make sense unless the audience believes that we are capable of deadly violence against a Jew, and he against a Christian. So our ideas and actions must go all the way.
Finally, though, this is a play in which you can’t see the love – the sacrifice one friend makes for another, a father’s care for his daughter, the help a servant gives a member of a troubled household, and particularly the love between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy – without understanding the hate. So, I console myself, the stronger the hate, the stronger the love. Because at Sweet Tea Shakespeare, love will always be the strongest choice.