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Theaters explore the diversity of the Jewish community

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When John Douglas Thompson let it be known he wanted to play Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most provocative lead roles, that was all Arin Arbus needed to hear. After directing Thompson in “Othello” and “Macbeth,” among other plays, Arbus counted the actor as a cherished traveling companion. Now she would join him in the boldest project of 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 the Shakespeare Theater Company on March 22. The cast underscores an intriguing development that — intensified by the Black Lives Matter movement — has propelled American theaters into new inquiries into racial and ethnic identity. Some of these most incisive efforts, in fact, occur at the intersection of race and Judaism.

“I could clearly imagine John embodying the journey that this character goes through, and so it was a very exciting idea for me,” Arbus said in an interview, adding that the challenge thrilled and terrified her. “We went on a journey of exploration to try to figure out how to cast the rest of the coin. And, you know, to explore what this piece means to us now, with John in this role.

A great actor tackles ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays

This process is reflected in a series of innovative ventures related to the portrayal of Jews in modern life and in theatre. And, more specifically, an effort to enlighten theatergoers about the range of people of different races who call themselves Jewish.

At the J Theater in Washington, for example, artistic director Adam Immerwahr recently launched Expanding the Canon, a program awarding $10,000 in commissions and $5,000 in production grants to seven North American playwrights who identify as Jews of color. This category includes multiethnic and multiracial Jews, as well as Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and West and Central Asia.

“What does it mean to be a Jewish theater?

In a wholly unscientific indication of the richness of this line of research, the J Theater, one of the nation’s leading Jewish theaters, has already received 70 submissions for the project.

Presenting a black Shylock and recruiting Jewish playwrights of color reveals how theaters see themselves as perspectives for understanding — especially vital at a time when hate crimes in this country are on the rise.

“Over the past few years, with the racial reckoning in this country, we have reflected on the obligations of the J Theater to tell the accurate story of the multi-ethnic, multi-racial tapestry of Judaism,” Immerwahr said.

“There just aren’t enough plays that speak to the experience of Jews of various races and ethnicities,” 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 excluded from what we call the ‘Ashke normativity’ of Jewish culture.” (Ashke normativity refers to the conventional centering of Ashkenazi Jewry of Eastern European descent as the mainstream of Jewish identity.)

Examining Jewishness has been a vital concern of American theater for generations, from early 20th-century Yiddish theater traditions to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” to “Fiddler on the Roof,” to irreverently trending 2010s Joshua Harmon’s “Bad The Jews.” What seems increasingly topical are the new ways in which Jewish playwrights and performers bring a wider range of cultural experiences into contemporary conversation. For example, in Alex Edelman’s sublime one-man show “Just for Us”—a sold-out hit at Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse—he hilariously illuminates the complex role Jews continue to occupy in America’s polarized society. ‘America.

The New York 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 real ethnicity. In a room full of anti-Semitic invective, he is now seen as an undesirable, someone who is not categorically white, which is something of a news for him. The “Just for us” of the title therefore poses an existential challenge: Who exactly, Edelman seems to wonder, is it “us”?

“The show is not a thought piece or anything,” Edelman said on a late winter afternoon, sitting in a small West Village park in the drizzly cold. “The show is not about ‘if the Jews are white’. Personally, I think this is a gray area, where Jews are classically “other” in a way that this binary doesn’t serve.

The concerns of “Just for Us,” directed by Adam Brace, cover Edelman’s childhood in a middle-class Boston suburb in a modern Orthodox home. He attended a formal Jewish day school, supplemented by Talmudic studies. But Boston is no shtetl, and the gentile world figured prominently: Edelman thunderously recounts a holiday season when her mother, seeking to console a Christian friend who had lost several family members, arranged for her a traditional Christmas dinner — at Edelman. the total indignation of the father. (A funny reward is how her father, a professor at Harvard Medical School, finally mellowed.)

“My comedy is very much influenced by my Talmudic upbringing,” Edelman said. “My comedy is all about the gray space between tradition and modernity.”

Efforts such as Theater J’s Expanding the Canon attempt to further broaden the understanding of the diaspora. “We are thrilled that the narrative of who speaks as a Jew is growing 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 provides grants with the goal of building “a truly multiracial, anti-racist Jewish community. “.

“The more we can do through the diversity of Jews,” Kaufman said, “the more our identity as a Jewish community is integrated.”

Immerwahr consulted with the initiative and secured funding from the Covenant Foundation, a group that advances Jewish education, for its unique playwriting program for Jews of color. The commissions will begin later this year with a beit midrash, or study period, for writers, led by Sabrina Sojourner – herself a Jew of color who serves as a community chaplain based in Rockville, Maryland, promoting the diversity and inclusion among Jews.

“At the beginning, we’re going to say we want to introduce you to the real landscape of Jewishness,” Immerwahr said, discussing the direction of the playwrights. “We imagine that some of them will come from highly educated religious backgrounds, and some of them may have more tenuous ties to their Jewishness. So that gives them some of the areas that they could explore in their plays. And then, as they begin to discover what they want to write about, we’ll give them the resources to follow their own individual journey.

The hope, Immerwahr added, “is that many of these plays will find their way into subsequent seasons both on our stage and on other stages around the country and the world.” In this regard, the J Theater, a branch of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, becomes a conduit both for new avenues of thinking about Jewish identity and how audiences digest them.

“The power of this project,” said Dava Schub, executive director of the DCJCC, “is not only in the ability to center stories of Jews of color on stage, but also to shine a light on new storytellers and tell “It’s not about the story, it’s also about the storyteller.”

The myriad of paths these storytellers could take is foreshadowed by Arbus and Thompson’s choice to investigate Shylock as a black man. Arbus noted that it’s not pure imagination to think of Shylock as a man of color. In fact, she says, the famous Shakespearean 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 underdog role didn’t seem so elusive.

“I view Shylock as an agent for the other,” he said. “I don’t think Shakespeare knew much about the Jewish people, but he was a humanist. He was able to write the form of a human being and give it life.

It was this aspect of a classic Jewish character that appealed to the actor — a quality that ultimately transcends race and ethnicity.

“Individual life is made meaningful only by struggle,” Thompson said. “That’s it, that’s what I’m looking for. It’s the struggle.

The merchant of Venice Through April 24 at the Michael R. Klein Theater, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.

just for us Through April 30 at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., New York. The show will move and continue its run, from June 13 to July 23, at the Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow St., New York. justforusshow.com.