My first full-length play to be produced in New York City was called A Shylock. It was about Shakespeare, and it was about antisemitism. The lead, a character named Jack Levy, was played by a talented actor who still frequently works with me, 25 years later. As it happens, he is not Jewish. At the time I thought nothing of it.
About three years ago, I found myself revisiting A Shylock. The original play seemed a bit awkward, and I think (or hope) that I’ve become a better writer since then. I ended up tossing the original script altogether and writing a new one, which I called The Shylock and the Shakespeareans. It hasn’t been produced yet, but it comes with an instruction: Please cast the Jewish characters with Jewish actors.
What changed in my thinking? Certainly it is in part a product of the times. As awareness has grown about the importance of authentic BIPOC casting, a similar awareness about Jewish casting has lagged behind. Partly this is due to the liminal space in which Judaism lives, demonstrated most recently by the Whoopi Goldberg kerfuffle: Is Jewishness a religion, an ethnicity, or a race? The answer, confusingly, is all three, and also none of the above. There are constant debates within the Jewish community about whether you can be Jewish and “white.” Judaism predates this distinction, and remains hard to pin down in a modern context. Certainly, the Jewish experience is unique, in both its cultural and historical dimensions. Even to talk about the Jewish experience isn’t quite right; encompassing Judaism as a whole, rather than defining it by the Ashkenazi sub-ethnicity that is most typically represented in American culture, is complex. Making it even more complex are the Jews who belong in multiple minorities at once: Black, Asian, Latinx, and others.
But there is another reason that awareness has lagged on Jewish casting and Jewish issues in theatre in general—a more insidious one. Jews in theatre, Jews in Hollywood, Jews in entertainment in general, often hold prominent roles in the industry. In theatre, Jewish creators count among the most well-known names, from Neil Simon to Arthur Miller to Wendy Wasserstein to Stephen Sondheim to Tony Kushner. Theatre audiences skew Jewish as well. Theatre and entertainment are very common Jewish passions, and our perceived success in these fields creates the illusion that there is no antisemitic discrimination at all.
This is of course untrue, as any Jewish actor who has been advised to get a nose job could tell you. Name changes have become less frequent than in the old days, when almost every Jewish actor used a stage name that hid their Jewishness. But I know from actor friends that agents still quietly suggest the practice for those hoping to appeal to any market without a large Jewish population. And I personally have been asked, without a hint of irony, whether I often do Jewish-themed plays in order to tap the imagined deep pockets of Jewish funding. In fact, the opposite is true. I found it much harder to find backers for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas than other festivals I’ve worked on. It also received much less publicity.
As any Jewish kid can tell you, being too Jewish is uncool. Media has often underlined that in the way Jews are portrayed. It’s the nerdy and brainy, the rich and savvy, or the comically blunt characters who are most often cast Jewish. And when Jewish characters are beautiful or physically powerful, they are usually cast with non-Jewish actors. Sarah Silverman recently discussed the issue specifically in regards to female Jewish representation in her podcast, particular pointing to the casting of Rachel Brosnahan as a Jewish comic in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot in Jewish circles recently: Jews don’t count. This is probably partly inspired by a recent book by that name, written by David Baddiel. It reflects the feeling that in a world in which minority status and identity and representation are being reconsidered, Jewishness is not in the conversation for anyone, except other Jews. It reflects the idea that, even as antisemitism is statistically on the rise and hate crimes against Jews in America outnumber any minority per capita, Jews are still seen as protected and privileged.
Controversy boiled over in London recently when the Royal Court’s play, Rare Earth Mettle, featured a character named Herschel Fink, based on Elon Musk. Of course, Musk is not Jewish, but he is rapaciously wealthy, and playwright Al Smith’s bias, probably an unconscious one, associated that avarice with a stereotypically Jewish name. What’s more remarkable is that this passed unremarked at the Royal Court—or at least that whatever warnings they received were unheeded, until it became an internet controversy and the character’s name was changed to Henry Finn.
Closer to home, Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) has a well-intentioned but ill-conceived production of The Merchant of Venice now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center right now. The director, Arin Arbus (who comes from a mixed cultural Jewish and Irish Catholic background), cast the talented African American actor John Douglas Thompson in the role of Shylock—a role he approached her with, one he was eager to explore. In an interview, she told me that her intention was to explore “societal systems which oppress people.” There is no doubt that Jewish and Black oppression are both important subjects for the stage, now more than ever. But they are not interchangeable. In my view, to cast a Black, non-Jewish actor as Shylock is comparable to casting a non-Black Jewish actor as Othello, all in the name of speaking out against generalized oppression.
Arbus told me she does not see the play itself as antisemitic, but instead as a comment on antisemitism. Personally, I find this view hard to credit, though historically it has been a surprisingly common apology for Merchant. The main character’s name, Shylock, has become a word, or rather a slur, for a greedy (Jewish) money lender. He hones his knife onstage to prepare for the gruesome murder of Antonio, a murder that echoes the blood libel, the enduring myth that Jews kill and eat Christians. True, he has a speech that supposedly gives him humanity, but as Dara Horn quotes her son saying in the recent book People Love Dead Jews, what it essentially says is, “If I’m a regular human, I get to be eee-vil like a regular human.” In other words, her son saw it as a prototypical supervillain’s self-rationalizing speech: And now I kill Batman.
There is a long and problematic history of non-Jews playing Shylock in ways that reinforce Jewish stereotypes. John Gross, in his book Shylock, describes the red devil wigs traditional for the character until the early 19th century, the “non-human” interpretation of Junius Booth (father of John Wilkes Booth), and the notoriously vicious Shylock of Werner Krauss during the Nazi era, with “unsteady, cunning little eyes… greasy caftan…[and] clawlike gestures with the hands.” Nowadays, those types of grossly antisemitic caricatures are thankfully rare, and Thompson’s Shylock is a dignified man hard done by the world, but even the most respectful portrayal can’t escape the inherent lust for blood and money that Shakespeare wrote into the character. Frankly, I have questions about whether The Merchant of Venice should ever be performed, but if it is, tackling antisemitism should be at its core. Even if Arbus is correct and Shakespeare was condemning antisemitism rather than participating in it, it feels like the question of Jewishness should have been examined during casting. Arbus confessed that casting Jewish was not a consideration, because she was focused on “building a company of actors who look like the world that we live in.” The fact that it was not a priority to examine whether this particular world should include Jewish actors, in a work centering anti-Jewish oppression, was a telling blindness for me.
Certainly, finding common cause between Jewish and Black oppression is a noble goal. But to accomplish that, the Jewish representation has to be strong. When I attended a preview performance, an audience member I met on the way out caught my eye. She had recognized me as a fellow Jew, and she wanted to know what I thought. I told her, more or less. Her companion disagreed. He understood the casting choices, he confided. “Maybe if it’s about racism people will sympathize. Nobody cares about antisemitism.” A sad message to send to your audience.
This is not to say that cross-cultural alliances can’t find expression through creative casting. In 2015, the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) produced Awake and Sing! with an all-Asian ensemble. This is a very different work, of course, written by a Jewish author, Clifford Odets, with true love for his Jewish characters. Mia Katigbak headed up the ensemble (she later played another Jewish role for me, Gertrude Stein, in my play The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein). A section of the play was presented at a workshop during the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas I curated. Every Jewish theatremaker I heard from loved it. What made it work was the dramaturgy, which made a very specific connection between Jewish and Asian immigrant experiences. There was no attempt to change the play or alter its subject. The connection was implied, but the Jewishness of the subject matter was embraced throughout.
Which brings me back to my own theatrical practice. It may be surprising, but despite everything I’ve just written, I do not always cast Jewish actors in Jewish parts. For me, the decision depends on the circumstance: Is this a part that needs that connection to culture and history? Is it a part that is less commonly represented as Jewish onstage, i.e., someone beautiful or muscular? Is the character connected to a history of antisemitic stereotyping? And, more complicatedly, is it a part that might actually benefit from casting outside of the pool of Jewish actors?
When I have produced and co-directed Cabaret in Captivity, a yearly event, I use a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish performers. The cabaret is made up of songs and sketches written in the Terezin camp during the Holocaust. Terezin was a “show” camp, which allowed its inmates more freedoms than most so that Red Cross observers would remain unaware of what was happening at extermination camps like Auschwitz. Most of the Terezin inmates, of course, were ultimately sent on to those camps and eventually murdered. Among the better-known pieces produced at Terezin are the operas Brundibar and The Emperor of Atlantis, as well as the play The Last Cyclist (a play I also directed, as a separate endeavor).
One year we put on Cabaret in Captivity in London, using students from around the globe, from England to Hong Kong to Israel to Tonga to Malaysia. It was an amazing experience. The student from Malaysia told me she had heard nothing about the Holocaust in her home country. It simply wasn’t discussed—not surprising, considering the fact that her country’s prime minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad, was and still is a Holocaust denier. But she embraced the chance to learn. And the way the work resonated through the diverse ensemble of performers was magical.
Performers in New York are not oblivious to the Holocaust, of course, but their participation in productions of Cabaret in Captivity has been equally inspiring. A mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish performers in a case like this is for me a statement about allyship. Many of the pieces involved were found by Dr. Lisa Peschel, who is not Jewish herself but has a deep passion for restoring these lost works. That allyship is deeply necessary in a world where Holocaust education is declining, to the point that some anti-vaxxers, including a former theatre collaborator of mine, insist that there is a legitimate comparison between themselves and Jews persecuted and killed by the Nazis.
So, as I say, the question of whether a part needs to be cast Jewish is something I approach on a case-by-case basis. When I was casting a play based on my own life, Doctors Jane and Alexander, I decided to cast Jewish actors in the central roles of myself and my mother, since I felt our Jewishness was central to the role. But I found it less important for the peripheral characters, which were also Jewish (or at least sometimes Jewish, as many actors played multiple parts).
The play I previously mentioned, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, will be playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London in March and April. For the upcoming production, I asked permission to bring Alyssa Simon, the actor who had played Alice in New York, to London. I asked not only because of the quality of the performance, but because one of the aims of the play is to make the subtext of Alice and Gertrude’s life, their lesbian and Jewish identities, text. And frankly, I write Jewish. My rhythms are often best performed by someone who understands the rhythms of a New York Jewish playwright.
But for Gertrude, I decided this was less necessary. Gertrude Stein had her own rhythms, and her connection to Jewish culture was a little more distant. Maybe it’s an arbitrary decision. But it’s the decision that feels right for me in the moment.
There’s an old joke about two Jews and three opinions; I find that I can find three different opinions about my own practice even within myself. I don’t know if there is one right answer about how to approach Jewish casting. I doubt there is. My choices will not be another artist’s choices, Jewish or non-Jewish.
But I do think that too often, this is a question that isn’t mindfully asked. It is a decision that is not only artistic but has bigger implications that span from representation to subtle antisemitism. The bigger the project, the bigger the need for the question. I was relieved to hear that the new Funny Girl on Broadway had cast Beanie Feldstein in the role of Fanny Brice. And I was dismayed to see the pushback on social media; there were so many antisemitic tropes in the critiques of her looks or her “type” that seemed mostly unconscious, but were well noted by the Jewish people reading them.
Jewish theatre has its own battles. We have to find a way to represent more diverse Jews, and I am glad to see some initiatives, like Theater J’s Expanding the Canon, springing up to do so. In my play The Shylock and the Shakespeareans, the Tubal character is actually a Moorish Jew named Terach, and Lorenzo is Asian. In my earlier exploration of Shylock, there was no such deliberate and diverse representation. We are all trying to grow and to change, and rightly so. But when questions of casting or theatrical representation on any level is discussed, Jews are rarely if ever in the conversation. It is time for Jewish inclusion to count.
Edward Einhorn is a playwright, director, and the artistic director of Untitled Theater Company No. 61 in New York City. He previously served as the executive director for the Alliance for Jewish Theatre and as the curator of the Festival of Jewish Theatre and Ideas.
Creative credits for production photos: The Merchant of Venice at TFANA, written by William Shakespeare, directed by Arin Arbus, with scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Marcus Doshi, and original music and sound design by Justin Ellington; Awake and Sing! at NAATCO, written by Clifford Odets, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, with set design by Anshuman Bhatia, costume design by Alexae Visel, lighting design by Gina Scherr, sound design by Toby Algya, postcard design by Barrett Brown, and dialect coaching by Charley Layton; The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, written and directed by Edward Einhorn, with set design by Justin and Christopher Swader, costume design by Ramona Ponce, lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, sound design by Mark Bruckner, stage manager: Berit Johnson, assistant director: Becca Silbert, production manager: Corinne Woods, wardrobe: Tristen Dossett, and production assistants: Victoria Giambalvo, Delia Kemph, Eloy Rosario, Lauren Winnenberg
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