“A bustling metropolis filled with chaos and divisions. The city is changing. Class and religion divide us. Hate and fear fuel our ignorance. And money is what drives us all.”
Is that 17th-century Venice, or an American city today? In fact it’s a quote from “Curren$y,” an all-female rap show based on “The Merchant of Venice,” and the resonance between the two settings is deliberate. Selected scenes from the new play, which is still in development, will be performed July 11 and 13 in San Francisco.
This reimagining of Shakespeare is the creation of Dan Wolf, a Berkeley-based actor, director, writer, Jewish educator and co-founder of the early hip-hop group Felonious. Throughout his career, he has explored issues of race, gender, identity and history through music, theater and youth education. Ten years ago, his “Angry Black White Boy” was named one of the top 10 plays by the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. His 2010 play, “Stateless: a Hip Hop Vaudeville,” balanced German and Jewish history with the problems of racism and the African American experience. It has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and Hamburg.
Several years back, while working as a media producer for the web magazine 3200stories.org at the JCC of San Francisco, a project about the figure of Shylock from “Merchant” stirred his interest in exploring themes of the Shakespearean work in hip-hop form. He first imagined a rap musical he would write as a performance piece for Felonious. But when he brought two scenes to a writing workshop at the Campo Santo theater company, his concept began to evolve.
After a group discussion, he realized that “the original play is incredibly sexist. Besides all the racism and xenophobia and religious anti-Semitism stuff, you’ve got a dead father who’s still controlling his daughter from the grave.” As the father of a young daughter, this raised concerns for Wolf. Then someone in the room said, “You should get eight of the most bad-ass female hip-hop emcees to play all the parts.”
It was not an idea he took to right away. But at a high school workshop just two months later, Wolf had a mostly female group to work with and some of them played male parts.
“When the women started to speak, the language was just lifted off the paper in a totally different way,” he said. And he realized something new about Shakespeare’s work. “It’s a play about otherness. About being on the outside of society and not powerful.”
In late 2016 he staged a reading of the script with an all-female cast at the JCC of the East Bay. The actresses all felt that the idea worked and insisted that he continue developing the play along those lines.
“It worked really well because the performance itself becomes a comment on women’s space, and giving voice, and truly creating a channel for women to be powerful. I needed to let these women shine. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The original “Merchant of Venice” is a play of its time, with gendered roles, and Wolf’s version is navigating the questions that come up, one at a time. “I definitely don’t want them wearing mustaches and acting all male,” he said.
As indicated by the play’s title, “Curren$y,” the seminal figure of the Jewish moneylender Shylock — whom he calls “Locks” — remains central. “The famous ‘pound of flesh speech’ was the first thing I wrote,” Wolf said. But with a cast made up mostly of women of color, a broad interpretation of the character’s Jewishness was inevitable.
“What I hope, and what I’m trying to do with the text, is to really create a sense that when we say ‘Jew’ we mean ‘other,’” Wolf said. “We mean Muslim, we mean Mexican, we mean black.”
Thus the play opens with a scene-setting rap song that describes the urban environment in which the drama is to unfold.
We built a ghetto where the Jews live/
Where the others live/
Where the natives and the moors and the turks live/
A place for immigrants, next to where good people live.
“I’m really trying to create for audiences this ghettoization of the other,” he said, “and to reflect on how we, in our country, at this moment, are creating our own real and imagined ghetto walls.”