Fort Lauderdale’s Ethnic Twist Flips Classic Shakespeare
By Kristen Hernandez
Playwright Darius V. Daughtry’s groundbreaking revamp of the Shakespearean classic, Merchants of Venice, has returned for a glorious second act. Theatre lovers will have the opportunity to stream the remix of Merchants exclusively on Vimeo, which originally graced the stage at Fort Lauderdale’s Victory Black Box Theatre in the LA Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center in July.
The original Shakespeare version dates back between 1596 and 1598 and tackles the early themes of race relations, social and economic inequality, religion and love acted out in poetic fashion. Daughty took those underlying topics and flipped it to reflect those same issues but played out in a contemporary lyrical format and features an all-star Black cast. Rather than during medieval times, Daughtry’s takes place in South Florida during a racial renaissance back in the 1940’s, when the merchants of Sistrunk and Overtown were trying to establish small businesses, and focuses in on real-life establishments, with some still in existence today.
Daughtry’s adaptation was featured during the Shakespeare La Florida Series at the brand-new Victory Black Box Theatre in the LA Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Center and presented by Grace Arts Florida. The location chosen to showcase the play was no accident and is full of relevant history. In 1938, 1409 NW 6th Street was Provident Hospital and was founded by two African American physicians, Von D. Mizell and James Sistrunk. It was exclusively for black residents because no other existing hospital in Florida would accept people of color.
Clare Vicory, Director of Grace Arts Florida has run the Shakespeare La Florida Series for several summers. Last year, they debuted a tango-infused version of Romeo and Juliet. Florida, or ‘La Florida”, was known as a Spanish territory in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds and was an early refuge for thriving black communities. It was also a pathway to freedom for black and brown people trying to escape colonial slavery.
According to Vicory, inspiration for this adaptation of Merchants was inspired when researching the Underground Railroad. “Our take of Merchants of Venice replaces Shakespeare’s Venice and Belmont with a South Florida Black renaissance beginning after the Great Depression,” Vicory said. “Shylock, played by veteran actor Kent Chambers-Wilson, represents the survival tactics of black elders who managed to create wealth despite the constraints of the devastating economic crash and racist policies.”
For Fort Lauderdale native and playwright Darius Daughtry, maintaining the unique history of Sistrunk and Overtown was personal. “As we start to think of gentrification and things, we could potentially lose like – the culture and history. I think it’s super important to maintain that history. So, to be able to speak about the area but also do it in the area, is of the utmost importance to me,” said Daughtry.
During Merchants Act One, each thespian performed skillfully delivered lyrical lines in Elizabethan English, guided by soulful blues and jazz playing Narrator, Douglas “Xaire” Goodridge. Those unfamiliar with Shakespeare may have trouble following the story line however, the actors took direction from Shakespearean Coach Peter Galman in order to deliver the lines with expert emotion and expression to help the audience with the difficult language.
Bass (played by Denzel McCausland), tries to help his friend Antonio (played by David Hepburn) secure a loan for a lounge and says to Shylock, the rich village elder and father of Antonio’s love interest, Portia (played by Marlo Rodriguez), “We are not friends and lending money will not make it so. But rather lending it to thine enemy, that if he break, thou with satisfaction may exact a penalty.” Shylock eventually agrees to loan Antonio the funds and then delivers the infamous, “Pound of Flesh” line with brilliance, adding “well, not literally” at the end of his short monologue.
The intricately designed set displayed relics from South Florida’s past businesses that formerly thrived in the same vicinity as the theater, leaving them on display throughout both Acts. The stunning cloaks the characters sported throughout the performance were created by Miami Fashion Institute’s student, Asanyah Davidson and NYC Fashion Designer Teofeek Abijako in reminiscence of the real-life superhero individuals and Black merchants who founded actual drama schools, beauty empires, theaters, and jazz clubs in that area.
During Act Two, the actors dropped the Shakespearean lingo and moved on to more understandable language and began to tackle the more serious and darker tones of the story, such as civil rights and racially charged riots. Darius included mixes of expertly played jazz, blues, and poetry throughout the play and even had an interactive scene with the audience during the grand opening of Antonio’s nightclub.
Even centuries later the issues of race, wealth, and socio-economic status are still playing out in real-time long after the Shakespearean era, and sadly those deep cultural issues are still alive and affecting us all, even today. When Merchants of Venice debuts on October 28th on televisions across the world, Darius’ creative vision will deliver a lyrical and historical performance that is sure to display the issues of the past, that are still haunting the present, in vivid theatre format. Click the link to purchase and stream the encore presentation of Merchants of Venice, only on Vimeo, https://www.graceartscenter.org/merchantsofveniceplay