Should non-Jews play Jewish characters? Our critic-at-large says yes

John Douglas Thompson and Alfredo Narciso in Theatre for a New Audience's "The Merchant of Venice." (Courtesy Henry Grossman)
John Douglas Thompson and Alfredo Narciso in Theatre for a New Audience's "The Merchant of Venice." (Courtesy Henry Grossman)

Recently, the playwright Edward Einhorn took the current production of  "The Merchant of Venice" to task for casting a Black non-Jewish actor, John Douglas Thompson, as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who has become emblematic of Elizabethan and even Shakespearean antisemitism. The February American Theatre article was titled "Hath not a Jew Roles? The Case for Authentic Jewish Casting."

And on Feb. 20, the New York Times led its Sunday Arts section with "Is It Funny for the Jews?," critic Jason Zinoman’s thoughts about comedy and Judaism in which he echoed comedian Sarah Silverman’s criticisms about the perpetuation of stereotypes when non-Jews are cast as Jews.

This follows an unleashing of leftist Latinx fury aimed, to varying degrees, at the six Jewish auteurs of “West Side Story” — the original team of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, along with the new movie’s Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner — for the sin of perpetuating stereotypes, particularly of Latinas.

To which I can only say:


The list of grievances in today’s contemporary arts dialogue is longer than the list of grievances at a Trump rally.

This is not to say that valid points aren’t continuing to be made about the state of arts in America, particularly about who gets to sit at the table when decisions are being made. That debate has resulted, in many cases, in wholesale rethinking about leadership and programming in arts and media organizations. All fine and good.

What isn’t fine and good is this. One of the main goals of the arts is to broaden our horizons beyond what we see and read in more establishment channels. But lately, much of the arts dialogue seems aimed at narrowing our horizons, at ideological point-scoring and censoriousness if not outright censorship.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story." (Courtesy Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox)
Ariana DeBose as Anita in "West Side Story." (Courtesy Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox)

Let’s start with “The Merchant of Venice” debate. Einhorn argues, “As awareness has grown about the importance of authentic BIPOC casting, a similar awareness about Jewish casting has lagged behind.”

There is one important difference, though. Part of the BIPOC argument has been that people of color have long been overlooked in casting circles, even when it comes to playing ethnic roles. Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles as Othello; Jonathan Pryce as the Vietnamese-French Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” Jews, on the other hand, secured an established place in the arts in America, both in acting and management. For every non-Jew who’s played a Jew there’s a Jew who’s played a non-Jew. That is not the case racially. Casting whites as people of color has tended to add insult to injury.

Einhorn acknowledges that, but goes on to say that antisemitism still persists in arts and entertainment circles and he also points to the rise in hate crimes against Jews. Both valid, of course. Even if Shakespeare was less antisemitic than his Elizabethan counterparts, “The Merchant of Venice” is an antisemitic play and any production in today’s times needs to explore that antisemitism. That can’t be done, he says, with a non-Jew playing Shylock any more than a production of “Othello” can be staged with a white person in the title role.

That, however, is demonstrably untrue, as anyone who saw Nael Nacer, a non-Jewish BIPOC actor, play Shylock in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production last September can attest to, particularly as he’s marched off to a concentration camp at the end. Under the direction of Igor Golyak, who is Jewish, it was one of the most chilling explorations of antisemitism I’ve seen. Casting an August Wilson play with white actors would make no sense. Casting “The Merchant of Venice” with Nacer or F. Murray Abraham in an ArtsEmerson production from 2011 made total sense.

I didn’t have the chance to see the Theatre for a New Audience “Merchant” with Thompson in New York, but am looking forward to seeing it in Washington, D.C., during its March-April run. I did, however, put the question of playing Shylock to Thompson when he was in Boston last summer as Prospero in “The Tempest.” Part of his response: “Me playing Shylock as a Black man is part of me opening up audiences to that idea that there is more than white Jewishness that contains this role. And Shakespeare didn't write it as if, well, it's only a white person who is Jewish can play this role. That's simply not the stipulation.”

We’ll come back to “Merchant” and “Othello.” But on to Zinoman’s thoughtful piece in the Times about non-Jews playing Jews and Jewish attitudes toward comedy. He doesn’t come to any over-arching conclusions, but does examine whether the self-irony that Jews bring toward our ethnicity is healthy in this day and age.

He quotes Silverman as saying, “The pattern in film is just undeniable … if the Jewish woman character is courageous, or deserves love, she is never played by a Jew.” And Zinoman concludes, “When a gentile plays a Jew, the results are often more affected, the mannerisms pronounced, which can often mean the difference between someone playing Jewish versus inhabiting a Jewish character.”

Zinoman and Silverman mention Rachel Brosnahan in the title role of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” as a case of religion-switching. He could also have mentioned Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as her parents. None of these actors are Jewish, nor do the Maisels act like any Jewish family I’ve ever met.

But is authenticity what art is about? Police, for example, have long complained about police dramas being inauthentic. Did that make “Hill Street Blues” or “NYPD Blue” a bad show?

To me, a work of art creates a world of its own which then sheds light on our world. And that’s what the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” did so well in investigating the proscribed life of a talented Jewish female comedian in the 1960s, one who’s torn between middle-class comforts and something more alluring and dangerous. Many people I know, Jewish and non, assumed that Brosnahan was a member of the tribe, but I’m saying that doesn’t matter. She was great in the role and if her mannerisms were exaggerated, would a young Barbra Streisand have been any less so? And isn’t exaggeration a mainstay of what comedy is about anyway? (For the record, “Mrs. Maisel” has grown less marvelous every year and, based on the first show of Season Four,  is now unwatchable, but that has more to do with the writing than the acting.)

Silverman’s gauntlet-throwing also raises interesting questions. Is it true, though, that Jewish women are “never” allowed to play strong Jewish women capable of being loved? Natalie Portman turns down most Jewish roles but did play a Hasidic woman capable of being loved in “New York, I Love You.” She also wrote, directed and starred in the great Israeli writer Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” as a tragic character who was certainly loved by her husband and son.

Scarlett Johansson’s Sondra Pransky in Woody Allen’s “Scoop” might not be specifically identified as Jewish but, c’mon, is the pope Catholic? Rachel Weisz was a Jewish historian writing about the Holocaust and antisemitism in “Denial” and a strong lesbian photographer who stands up to her Hasidic family in “Disobedience.”

Silverman also says, “If Winona Ryder had stayed Winona Horowitz, would she have starred in ‘The Age of Innoncence?’ She wouldn’t.” Maybe, but there is a long history of artists of all ethnicities changing their names to ones that sound more mellifluous to the average ear for one linguistic reason (e.g. plosives, alliteration) or another — Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant and Boris Karloff, not just Jews such as Ryder and Bob Dylan.

This is not to say that Silverman and Zinoman are wrong when it comes to Jewish stereotypes in Hollywood and beyond. And those stereotypes are particularly offensive when perpetrated by others. (Here’s looking at you, John Turturro, playing Herb Stempel in “Quiz Show.”)

Ah, stereotypes. The new “West Side Story” has been trashed by Latinx cultural critics despite Steven Spielberg’s and Tony Kushner’s attempts to fix some of the problems with the original. One headline in the New York Times: "The ‘West Side Story’ Remake We Didn’t Need" and another in the Los Angeles Times: "Spielberg tried to save ‘West Side Story.’ But its history makes it unsalvageable."

In the latter, Ashley Lee quotes Frances Negrón-Muntaner, founding director of the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University: “Drawing on centuries-old stereotypes about Latinos, the women are virginal and childlike or sexual and fiery; the men are violent and clannish. [It] widely popularized racist and sexist stereotypes that continue to shape how the world sees Puerto Ricans and how they see themselves.”

Really? The men are violent and clannish, but no more so than the white Jets and no more so than gangs of all ethnicities in the 1950s. Is not the message the same as Shakespeare’s in the “Romeo and Juliet” original — that we all have to get past violence and clannishness to settle our disputes? And is the empathy in “West Side Story” not the same for the waste of life among all ethnicities, Polish, Italian or Puerto Rican? As far as those stereotypical women go, the dichotomy between meek, innocent girls or sexy, fiery women has been with us since the Bible and “The Odyssey.” Penelope and Circe, anybody? Elena Ferrante’s Lenù and Lila in “My Brilliant Friend”? Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in “Killing Eve”? One could draw up a similar list of “nice guys vs. bad boys.” Of all ethnicities.

Essentially, the arguments that the anti-“West Side Story” writers make is the same as those of Edward Einhorn in “The Merchant of Venice.” Einhorn: Gentiles have no right telling the story of antisemitism as it was aimed at Shylock; Negrón-Muntaner: White men have no right telling the story of Puerto Ricans.

But let’s revisit one of Einhorn’s theses: “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.”

Nael Nacer in the 2021 Actors' Shakespeare Project production of "The Merchant of Venice." (Nile Scott Studios)
Nael Nacer in the 2021 Actors' Shakespeare Project production of "The Merchant of Venice." (Nile Scott Studios)

Well, what about that? Thompson mentioned to me in that same interview last summer that Shakespeare & Company was going to mount an “Othello” in which he and Jonathan Epstein would trade off playing Othello and Iago, but he added that it fell apart for scheduling reasons.

You can see why that wouldn’t fly when Christopher Plummer wanted to do the same with James Earl Jones about 50 years ago. While there is still more work to be done in fostering equity in the theater, the record on performing Shakespeare is now pretty good. Thompson is probably the most sought-after Shakespearean actor in America. Except for Denzel Washington. Casting at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare & Company and Actors’ Shakespeare Project is always multiracial, with the leads often going to BIPOC actors.

Equity hasn’t been reached, but it has gotten to the point where it would not disturb the universe for a white man to play Othello, though it would probably have to be done as Shakespeare & Company envisioned it, in rotation.

There is one other issue to consider. There is something to be said for outsiders taking a look at what’s happening outside their purview. Far from damning them for appropriation, I applaud non-Jewish writers like D.M. Thomas and William Styron for writing so perceptively and movingly about the Holocaust, in “The White Hotel” and “Sophie’s Choice” respectively, even if Sophie herself was Catholic. Thomas writing about the Holocaust and Don Byron playing klezmer music broaden the conversation and tell us things that perhaps a Jewish artist might not. Might the same be said for John Douglas Thompson and Rachel Brosnahan? And also for white artists looking at issues affecting people of color like Dana Schutz, who is white, painting Emmett Till in "Open Casket," which led to calls for the painting to be burned and, in Boston, for the Institute of Contemporary Art to close her show even though it didn’t contain the Till painting.

A group of museum-goers examine a painting entitled "Open Casket" by artist Dana Schutz at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Alina Heineke/AP)
A group of museum-goers examine a painting entitled "Open Casket" by artist Dana Schutz at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. (Alina Heineke/AP)

Said Thompson when I spoke to him after the American Theatre piece came out: “What I’m asking is to hold Blackness and Jewishness together as one, as you would whiteness and Jewishness. On some level it adds to the story, a Shylock of color. What can we gain, what avenues can we gain from this? There’s an educational aspect to it as well.”

So let’s by all means talk about the flaws in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Oliver Twist”; in “West Side Story” and “Miss Saigon”; in “Heart of Darkness” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner”; in “Hamilton” and the film version of “In the Heights.”

Ultimately, though, we should all want to leave the world in a better place when we’ve called it quits. Although that isn’t in the job description for artists, most of the great ones have.

Proscribing John Douglas Thompson from playing Shylock or Steven Spielberg from remaking “West Side Story” does not leave the world in a better place. Quite the opposite.


Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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