The Merchant of Venice and Clarington
Last season, Lark's Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner traveled to Los Angeles, California, to get together with some of the many Lark playwrights and community members who have migrated to pursue their craft on the West Coast (aka, the folks behind what some people are calling the Golden Age of Television). Fostering a community among artists remains essential even, and perhaps especially, when the artists are living on opposite ends of a land mass. So, we're asking some of our warm weather friends (not to be confused with fair weather friends) to write in on how the culture of a city influences the work and art it fosters, bicoastal life, finding artistic community, and creative ways we can bridge the distance between two cities that value the power of dramatic storytelling.
First up, we asked playwright Shishir Kurup to have a conversation with playwright, Lark Board Member, and L.A. local Liza Powel O'Brien, about his old play made new again, Merchant on Venice.
LIZA POWEL O'BRIEN: What initially inspired this conflation of ideas?
SHISHIR KURUP: Cornerstone Theater put out an initiative with the Audrey Skirball Center saying, let’s put some money aside and get some playwrights to write about streets and corners of this city. The idea was to get a bunch of different points of view and also show how varied the culture in the city is. I had always wanted to work on The Merchant of Venice because it’s a very problematic play. So I picked the corner of Venice Boulevard and Clarington Avenue. All around are these incredible South Asian places, a very famous Thai place called Natalee Thai, a lot of little shops, different kinds of sewing shops, and things like that. I centralized it in this place called Petterson’s, which doesn’t exist anymore, but at one time had been a hub-like coffee shop with a nice sized stage, and a lot of bands played there, including some of my friends. Now, if you go there, there are these fancy, beautiful high rises—nice places to stay for people who can afford it—probably people who are dealing with the studios that are nearby. So, in a funny way the play grabs on a little bit to the illusion of what LA is because that place, Petterson's, doesn’t exist anymore; it’s been taken over by apartment buildings. But I centralized the play in this location and called it Petterson’s since it was a piece of Culver City History and so I wanted it to live somehow.
That corner, Venice and Clarington, became very rich for me. There’s a kind of authenticity about it. And yet I also kind of wanted to bring in a conversation most people don’t seem to know about. When you think of the Merchant of Venice you think of the Christian/Jew conflict. My friend Yehuda Hyman says “I’m not ish anything, I’m a Jew!" I like that, so I don’t say Jewish either. And I thought well, it would be interesting—because I talk with my friends who are Jews and they say, “Aw man, that’s a challenging play” and I was like, “look, I feel the same way, I understand. Every time I’ve seen the play it’s really hard to sit through.” So I’m wondering if I should put it in this context and I thought, well, Hindu-Muslim conflict is also something that’s pretty powerful. To put a Muslim in the position of what the Jew is in the original I thought would be interesting. Especially in this moment in time. Of course that was a number of years ago now, but the times seem to remain “this moment in time” if not worse.
The problem with my Merchant, and sadly a cool thing about it as well, is that it doesn’t seem to go out of fashion because the anti-Muslim sentiment is still pretty big. It’s Trump talking about it, versus in this play it’s the Hindu-Muslim conflict, so it’s from a different angle but it’s still: The “antagonist” is a Muslim. And even though I give him some of the best arguments and the best language to make his case, even though he’s not the most accommodating person in the world, he’s the minority as well as the smartest guy in the room. You know you have characters in real life who are a little withheld, a little sort of standoffish, but there’s a deeper inner life to them, and that is what I was trying to reach. To put it on stage so we see that human being, and that human being is actually way more interesting than his stereotype, is what we are always trying to sort of go for in the theater, don’t you think?
LPO: You wrote this play more than a decade ago. It seems as if it may be even more relevant now. Do you agree?
SK: It’s always been as far as I can remember a kind of a hot topic because in this country, the ignorance of other cultures is palpable and plain, and simple geographic knowledge is quite poor among the average American. We’ve certainly seen what was once called the “ugly American” made fun of by the Jimmy Kimmels and Jimmy Fallons even going back to Jay Leno and David Letterman. And it always seemed like a kind of badge of honor not to know about other cultures because we’re USA! USA! USA! Which means YOU need to know about US but not necessarily the other way around. I was shocked when I came here as a teen at the kinds of questions I got from not just kids but adults which betrayed so much of that ignorance. Of course I’ve since met so many people who beggar that mind set and are welcoming about the changes that have been taking place in this country for the last few decades, and seem to very much be embracing the notion of not just diversity and multiplicity, but curiosity about how our neighbors near and far are faring, and feeling intrinsically connected to them.
And I suppose that’s where the divide between the progressive and the conservative mindsets lines have been drawn. Most people in other countries know much more about the United States than the other way around. I guess that comes with the mantle of being the Alpha Country. But it leaves the Alpha at a disadvantage in that they’re more in the dark about many things, including cultural transmission. And that darkness leads to so much unnecessary ignorance and violence. And as such it was inevitable that Muslims, and more accurately Islam, is what gets targeted. Even from the likes of Bill Maher. They’ve unfairly been that for a really long time though. 16 years on this latest run. And frankly, Pre 9-11 Clinton ordered four days of missile bombings on Afghanistan and Sudan (the latter destroying Sudan’s only pharmaceutical factory) so even a president considered one of the smarter ones, Rhodes Scholar and all, can bend to the political pressure of maintaining the Alpha Dog Country irrational stance that apparently keeps the quo, status!
Going back in time, the irony is that by the 8th century A.D., the Muslims and the Arabs had become so rich and refined and artistic that they were considered the center of the world of art, architecture, science, mathematics, and astronomy while Muslim calligraphy became some of the most stunning and intricate art ever known. The Taj Mahal is based on Muslim architecture. They have an incredible place in world arts and culture and so the fact they remain kind of the bogeyman of the world remains problematic. Of course the Taliban, not too long after, were blasting the faces off the Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley. Wahhabism. Extremism! Problematic! Sharuk talks about it in his trial scene, “And yet we are the thing that goes bump in the night”. We are the “black hat wearing, bomb bursting, jihad-enacting wife-beaters!” And yet you know Islam is one of the first places where the women could divorce the men. So, I love and wrestle with all the contradictions, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And contradictions are what the stage is all about. It’s about naming them and putting them on stage all at the same time and seeing what the fallout is.
And, you know, The Merchant of Venice is supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not funny. It is in fact quite unfunny. You can bend your actors into pretzels trying to make that “comedy” funny but it doesn’t translate anymore. Probably was unfunny within a dozen years and that’s being generous. You go see Merchant of Venice and you’re like, “this isn’t funny at all.” And the jokes that are in there, nobody understands because they’re four hundred years old. I mean, those jokes were old two months after the play was written. You know, you make a joke about some celebrity that was five years ago and most people are like, “Who’s that?” And that’s with YouTube and 24 hour news cycles. So, that same thing I think still exists within the Shakespearean oeuvre. These are jokes but they don’t mean anything to us. So I wanted to take those things and update them. Make references to pop people, pop artists; musicians, actors, politicians, and all this stuff that still means something to us, and you can tell the ones that last longer, more people will get. Like Cher, for instance. She seems to transcend time.
I really wanted my Merchant to be funny. Just because our main characters don’t die in the end doesn’t by fiat make it a comedy. Because if you look at the definition of Shakespeare’s comedies, “a play characterized by it’s humorous or satirical tone in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity,” one is appalled at who those characters are. Not Shylock and Jessica, the minorities, but Bassanio and Portia and their lot, the majority, who are in my opinion not the people for whom one cheers. It’s like taking the side of the slave owners in Roots rather than the slaves. There’s a lot of humor in Merchant on Venice, some of it very caustic, some of it very dark, some of it problematic, but it is still something that you would laugh at—that you’re afraid to laugh at, but love laughing at. You enjoy laughing with, you know.
That was the other goal. The language is to me what’s really important. That’s what makes it about now. That’s what makes it a cultural experience. And because my own life experience is about not being an individual from a single part of the world, born and raised for example in a small village or town and remained there for my whole life, but a a person born in India, raised in Kenya and then an immigrant to the States. So those are three different kinds of experiences. And in the process of that you realize you bring along with you all those cultures and mix those spices into your American fondue.
So I thought, let’s write about these mixes and differences. Are there things we can laugh at; are there things we can take seriously? How do you write about a purportedly venal character, a problematic character? Maybe if at the same time he’s a single parent trying to protect his only child, a daughter.
What I didn’t want to back away from is the darkness of the play. How people talk about other people. Some of the fun people—Amithaba, the Gratiano character, who’s usually the character in most of Shakespeare’s plays who is caustic and rough and a little bit of a jerk—like a fun jerk in some ways but also quite hotheaded. I made sure he was a jerk that was not irredeemable but not so easy to like. And one of our main characters, Pushpa, has these issues of class and color and things that are just like everyday language for her but she doesn’t notice that it’s really racist. It’s really problematic. And when I say racist—she’s a lighter skinned person. And her cousin, who is darker-skinned, who turns out not to be her cousin but you realize is more of an indentured servant—those kinds of things are left in the play because that was a reality in the time that Shakespeare wrote it and it’s still the reality today in India and abroad and I want that reality to be felt because people think none of this happens anymore. People think, oh, we have child labor laws that protect us, and we as a country think that we are pretty beyond all that, and we are realizing now, especially with this latest election, that we are not beyond it. We actually are deeply in it. Quite deeply in it.
LPO: When was the play first produced?
The first one was in Chicago, at that time it was called Silk Road Theater Project; now it’s called Silk Road Rising, and they were a pretty new theater company at the time. That production got incredible reviews, from all the big Chicago papers, and I was astounded by the fact that people got it and seemed to genuinely like what they were experiencing. And I thought, this could be great fun.
So many people, when they see it, when they read it, they really respond to it strongly. The greatest thing is seeing Indian women sitting in that audience, covering their mouths, trying to keep from howling. But the play has something for everyone. There are so many pop references; the play is replete with song lyrics. Some of them you can really catch and some of them get by you. In a funny way I am really regurgitating the American culture I absorbed back with a South Asian patina onto the page and in turn to the stage. This is what I’ve received; this is what I put back out. Chopped up and diced and put into different places where it’s secreted but it’s there on some level. It’s like a chopped salad. Something that met with a blade and came back with a different feel, but the taste is recognizable. Merchant has had the most lovely rejections ever. People read the play and they say, we really love this play, but we don’t know how to do it. Meaning they don’t have access to 10 South Asian and one Latino actor. In all it’s readings and two productions we’ve happily added Anglo and African American or Afro Caribbean (in the case of the London production) actors to the cast. Reverse engineering diversity.
LPO: Why is that?
Sometimes, in the theater, in my mind, we’re like 500 years behind, you know? Television is actually far more diverse and far more ahead of the curve, even more than movies and theater. But I do think there’s a reason Broadway was called the great white way, you know?
Most of these theaters don’t think about it being for a culture, and in the long run they will end up losing out. Because if you don’t incorporate all the people that are cropping up around you who are interesting, and see that their stories as something you might like to capitalize on, you’re not going to survive as a theater. That becomes part of the problem because it feels like theater-going culture is only white. If you go to the Mark Taper Forum, you see mostly white people. I think a lot of it is because, who can afford Theater?
LPO: Also, we have more competition in the palm of our hand than ever in the history of theater.
But you don’t affect the people on that screen. You can affect people on that stage; you have some power as an audience member in the theater. In that way, you are an integral part of that experience. Because how do you respond to something that changes from day to day for that performer. If you’re an ebullient crowd, that performance is alchemically changed from the one for a bunch of people who are falling asleep. That’s what I see a lot: A bunch of older white men falling asleep and the wives kind of doing the little elbow to wake them up. To the point where I’ve heard people actually snoring in the theater. That’s why I think with Cornerstone, people like the work because it seems to be speaking authentically of here and now.
LPO: This marrying of a historical framework for modern language also feels very current, in the age of Hamilton.
It’s funny you’re comparing it to that monster of a show, because other people have said that to me recently, too. I haven’t seen Hamilton but have seen some of it on clips and absolutely love the idea of taking language and owning it, and not being interested in representing the true racial make up of the founding fathers. What a bold idea. That’s what I wanted to do was own the language. It’s not somebody else’s language that’s been given to me, because I’ve certainly received lots of language over the years from different places. But to have that kind of language—make American English as important as anything else, you know our mania over the British accent… because English is the language I’m writing in, and it’s from all over the world and it’s very different in Africa as it is in India as it is in the Seychelles as it is here, you know? And on some level it really is a nod to the absorbency, ubiquity and resilience of this particular language which at one point in our near history saw the sun never set on its hegemonic presence.