By Attiyya Atkins
Sistrunk– The Grace Arts Center, a non-profit theater company, presents Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in a whole new color – BLACK.
The all-black cast is putting a new take on a 16th century play that focuses on themes of prejudice, wealth, relationships, and community set during a South Florida Black renaissance. The play features stories of real-life merchants of Miami’s Overtown and Fort Lauderdale’s Sistrunk areas, two burgeoning Black communities that thrived after the Great Depression from the 1930s to the 1960s.
The original Merchant of Venice focuses on a working-class man who didn’t have enough money to court a wealthy woman. He asks for a loan from a rich man, and instead of interest on the debt, he has to pay back his debt with his flesh. Writer and director of all-black adaptation, Darius V. Daughtry of the Arts Prevail Project spun the classic “to dig deep and tell important stories of real Black people that lived in this community.”
Daughtry considers himself a griot, an African storyteller. “It’s important to me for to tell stories that represent our culture and inspire a long-lasting legacy.”
The play required intense research which included visiting the vault and the Historic Lyric Theater in Miami. Some references include iconic clubs of that time like The Capital, The Ritz and The Modern in Miami, which entertained Black communities for more than 50 years.
Clare Vickery, Director of the Grace Arts Center and producer of the play said, “We assembled a collage of real-life merchants that lived after the Great Depression that were unheard of, and we assembled a collage of characters that we felt would be representing these different individuals and this remake.”
Aside from the history woven throughout the story, music and fashion take center stage. Vickery said that the compilation, especially the cloaks designed by fashion designers Taofeek Abijako and Asanyah Davidson, are meant to “showcase the superhero capacities of these individuals to overcome Jim Crow, overcome the Depression, and overcome all of the things that were besetting them and still have these beautiful lives and beautiful families.”
Daughtry reduced Shakespeare’s five-act play to two acts, with the first act spoken in Shakespearean poetry and the second act with a more modern twist to connect with a wider audience.
“The show is for everybody,” Daughtry said. “…for kids to senior citizens.” But for him, a crucial piece of the production is the effect it will have on the youth. “If we can get a bunch of young Black people in here to look up and see people like them acting and speaking eloquently and performing and being beautiful and amazing, it’s worth it.”
The play debuts at the L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Theater, also known as the Victory Black Box Theater, 1409 NW Sistrunk Blvd., Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, July 7 through Sunday, July 10.
The new theater pays homage to the original Victory Theater which opened in Fort Lauderdale in the 1940s on Sistrunk Blvd. It was the only theater for Black people during segregation in Broward County. By the 1970s, the theater fell into disrepair and the community asked for it to be resurrected when the YMCA was revamped earlier this year.
Even the ground that the YMCA stands on speaks to the resilience of the Black community. It used to be the site of the first Black hospital in Broward County, as Black people were not allowed to go to Broward General hospital. In the 1930s, Dr. Von Mizell one of Fort Lauderdale’s Black doctors, opened the hospital.
“This area is particularly rich in history and culture,” said Cathleen Dean, Director of Arts and Theatre Performance at the L.A. Lee YMCA/Mizell Community Theater. “This is a manifestation of the community.”
Cast and Crew:
Douglas “Xaire” Goodridge – The Narrator and Lorenzo
David Hepburn – Antonio
Yamille Mercedes – Nerissa
Denzel McCausland – Bassanio
Marlo Rodriguez – Portia
Lauren Potts – Jessica
Kent Chambers-Wilson – Shylock
Set Design by Miami-based artist, Adler Guerrier
Stage Manager, Harold Petion
Produced by Grace Arts Center
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