Twenty-five years ago this month, in April 1992, the Rodney King trial was decided. This resulted to the LA riots, although some would say they were a long time coming.
The following summer, director Peter Sellars staged a production of The Merchant of Venice in Leimert Park, just a few miles from where major violence erupted at Florence and Normandie, and just inside the curfew boundary. He chose this play because he says it’s “Shakespeare’s play about racism.”
In 1994, the play came to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Here’s an excerpt, including the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, with Paul Butler as Shylock.
In order to highlight the contemporary issues of the play, including antisemitism and racism, Sellars updated the production to twentieth-century Venice Beach, CA and cast the play in a unique manner, which he discusses here.
Peter Sellars talks to Studs about the importance of theater, and why we still have it around even though we can watch so much on television or at the movies. He tells Studs, “Theater is the last place where grassroots politics can have a presence” and goes on to explain why he chose a Shakespearean play to convey his message.
Reflecting on Los Angeles, Sellars says, “The Rodney King trial, and the aftermath of that, already established that Los Angeles was at the center of the crisis zone of this country, and the issues that are on America’s mind are in their fiercest, most painful state in that city.” He goes on to talk about why Leimert Park was chosen as the site for the arts festival, which included the production of The Merchant of Venice.
Speaking about why he chose The Merchant of Venice specifically, Sellars highlights the word merchant in the title, saying “It’s about the economic construction of racism. Racism wasn’t just invented because some people don’t like other people; it was invented as a specific tool of exploitation.” Sellars applauds Shakespeare for writing a play about antisemitism at a time when Jewish people had been expelled from England, and goes on to discuss Shakespeare’s time as one in which colonial imperialism exploded.