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Folger Story

CrossTalk DC: Sparking Conversations about Shakespeare, Race, and Religion

A Folger community engagement initiative has spurred thoughtful conversations about race and religion with Shakespeare at the center, as well as the publication of a new collection of lesson plans for teachers to guide conversations about identity and difference in their classrooms.

Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger launched CrossTalk: DC Reflects on Identity and Difference in May 2016, choosing two theater pieces as catalysts for discussion: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and a new play commissioned by Folger Theatre called District Merchants.

Written by Aaron Posner as a variation on The Merchant of VeniceDistrict Merchants juxtaposes the post-Civil War experiences of two businessmen in Washington, DC. Shakespeare’s Antonio becomes the African American Antoine, with Shylock as an immigrant Jew. The play premiered at Folger Theatre in 2016.

Craig Wallace (Antoine) and Matthew Boston (Shylock), District Merchants, directed by Michael John Garces, Folger Theatre, 2016.

“Shakespeare’s plays and poems ask us to think again about who we are and what drives us,” says Folger Director Michael Witmore. “This is why we feel as an institution that his works serve as a fine springboard for not only a new play, District Merchants, but also for a range of conversations about difference and identity–two topics that Shakespeare addressed head on in The Merchant of Venice and in many other of his plays.”

During the CrossTalk DC kickoff forum, participants listened to actors read brief scenes from both plays, followed by an open discussion in the reading rooms. In the months that followed, the Folger partnered with Anacostia Community Museum, District of Columbia Public Schools, District of Columbia Public Library, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Metropolitan AME Church, and Trinity Washington University to organize a series of conversations about racial and religious identity.

Photo by Tracy Russo

These conversations ranged from the historic use of racially restrictive housing covenants in DC, which prevented African Americans from buying homes in white neighborhoods, to Jewish life during the Civil War and the changes the war brought for the city’s newly expanded Jewish community. Readers discussed The Merchant of Venice at book clubs held at five DC Public Library branches across the city, and artists entered the dialogue with open-mic readings.

If we talk, listen, and talk back to one another, if we hear each other’s stories, there’s a chance we can learn, empathize, and understand.

This past summer, Folger Education worked with 10 high school teachers in the DC area to distill these conversations into six lessons for classroom use, now available online. These lessons, “Essential Everyday Bravery: Thinking and Talking About Identity and Difference in Your Classroom,” include scripts and video clips from The Merchant of Venice and District Merchants, step-by-step directions for teachers, and lists of supplemental texts and resources.

“Issues around our identities and differences—perceived and/or actual—tend to get us pointing at one another rather than listening to one another,” Folger Director of Education Peggy O’Brien says. “If we talk, listen, and talk back to one another, if we hear each other’s stories, there’s a chance we can learn, empathize, and understand.”

In the lessons, students examine characters’ motivations and their ways of speaking, identify stereotypes and cultural gaps, and consider the idea of “otherness” in the text and in their own lives. The goal is to use literature to open up conversations so that students can understand perspectives and positions that are not their own, as well as how the use of language affects others.

“Teach these lessons before, during, or after whatever else you’re teaching,” O’Brien tells teachers. “You don’t have to be teaching The Merchant of Venice, or any Shakespeare at all for that matter. The scenes and the topics stand strong on their own.”

CrossTalk: DC Reflects on Identity and Difference was one part of a nationwide initiative, Humanities in the Public Square, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and aimed at fostering meaningful dialogue in communities about the most pressing issues of the day. Discussions about race, democracy, and citizenship, to name a few, are happening around the country. NEH believes that the perspectives of the humanities—history, literature, philosophy—can be brought to bear on our current challenges and help us better understand the context and complexity of the issues.

“Works of art can draw us into dialogue about issues that may be difficult, and which might not be approachable in any other way,” says Witmore.

The Folger, building on the NEH-supported successes of last year, has launched its own follow-up initiative, CrossTalk: District of Conversation, continuing with many of its inaugural community partners. The kick-off forum in May convened a conversation about Shakespeare’s The Tempest and American playwright August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

This article is from the Winter 2018 issue of  Folger Magazine.