Looking back: Rodney King and The Merchant of Venice

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.

Photo credit: By Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/55l29b, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40983097

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Audio Collage: Civil Rights & Racism

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress during the opening weekend of the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Certainly it was inspiring to learn so much about the work of activists, politicians, and everyday people; but it also left me feeling a real grief for our country, that such a thing could have ever taken place here.  And yet it is in having an exchange – a conversation – about this history that may keep us from repeating it.

Studs Terkel understood the power that words and conversation have to affect not only our daily experiences, but the history we choose to make both personally and nationally.  In the conversations I listened to while preparing this collage, Terkel bears witness to the challenges that face underdogs of every stripe, and invites us to do the same.  He asks Muhammad Ali what it was like to read about Emmett Till’s death in the newspaper, when Ali was just a child himself; he talks to a young Puerto Rican activist about his struggles with the local alderman; and he listens to Maya Angelou recall seeing children speak disrespectfully toward her grandmother because she was Black and they were white.

Like the exhibit at the Library of Congress, Terkel’s conversations about civil rights simultaneously reveal the best and worst of human behavior; but through it all, he never loses heart.  He is obviously inspired by the stories he hears; and his speakers’ words, hopeful or heartbreaking, flow clearly through my laptop speakers, as potent as when he first recorded them.

Order of clips:  Pete Seeger; Maya Angelou (reading an excerpt from “When I Think About Myself”); Peter Sellars; three selections from the 1969 “Fiesta: A Chicago Happening” in Lincoln Park (male resident, Terkel, female resident); William Bradford Huie; Charles V. Hamilton; Muhammad Ali; Dr. Neil Sullivan; Terkel and Ali; friend of Paul Robeson at a tribute event; Myles Horton; Terkel and Rosa Parks; John D. Weaver; Daniel Berrigan, S.J.; Pete Seeger (singing).

Thank you to Allison Schein and Sophia Feddersen for their help in building this collage.

-Grace Radkins, Archive Assistant