One of the most distressing, perhaps even traumatic, aspects of the current presidential campaign has been the pitting of one racial, ethnic or religious minority against another for political gain. In his new play, “Jew vs. Malta,” Jewish artist Jesse Freedman has paired works that could not seem, on the surface at least, to be more different: the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” and controversial rapper Kanye West’s 2013 album’s “Yeezus.” But by slicing and dicing the words and music, respectively, from these sources, Freedman satirizes the ways in which politicians cold-heartedly exploit and manipulate differences among groups in American society. The play runs through this weekend at La MaMa in the East Village.
Marlowe’s tragicomedy, first staged in 1589, predates Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and is often discussed as a possible inspiration for that play. It centers on a diabolical Jewish merchant, Barabas, who lives in Ottoman-ruled Malta, and who will sacrifice anything, including his own daughter, Abigail, for money and power. The play, originally spelled “Ievv of Malta,” is infrequently performed these days; its last major New York production was in 2007, when F. Murray Abraham performed it in repertory with “The Merchant of Venice.” (It was also staged just last year by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon.)
West’s sixth solo album — he is currently touring the country with his seventh and latest album, “The Life of Pablo” — is widely considered to be one of his best, in its highly charged, acoustically brilliant, bravura mixture of racial, sexual and religious imagery; it cemented his reputation as one of the most innovative musical artists working today. (His 2014 marriage to superstar Kim Kardashian has also kept him almost constantly in the public eye.)
By layering snippets of dialogue, lyrics and musical phrases on top of one another, Freedman and his musical director, Avi Amon, bring the two texts into a frenzied, unsettling and always provocative conversation with each other.
Freedman, who grew up in a Jewish family in Stamford, Conn., has long been interested in reinterpreting Jewish texts. In 2010, he directed a production of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror,” about the race riots in Crown Heights. And in 2012, he helmed “Chalom: A Dream Opera,” Bronwen Mullin’s work about a yeshiva boy who gets carried away by sexual fantasies.
In an interview, Freedman told The Jewish Week he first started reading “The Jew of Malta” in 2013, at the time that George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, which was also when the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement was gaining steam on American college campuses. He decided to investigate “my own history as a religious and spiritual Jew at a time when identity politics, as well as race and class politics, are at the forefront.”
In writing the play, Freedman created Barabas (who is played by different actors, even, in one scene, at the same time; the production also uses large puppets) to be “not a character but the on-stage construction of a character.” All the actors, he noted, occasionally step out of character and comment on the action, consistent with German theater artist Bertolt Brecht’s belief that audiences need to have the illusion of reality on the stage disrupted so they can see the potential for their own agency in changing society. “Like Brecht,” Freedman said, “we interrupt the action with musical numbers and didactic messages to show the artificiality of the stage world.”
West’s determination to challenge authority and provoke discomfort, if not outrage, with the ways things are is, Freedman said, not unlike that of Marlowe. “Marlowe was also a bit of an anarchist,” he said. “He didn’t want anyone to be either slaves or masters. He was willing to misbehave rather than be subservient.” And, also like Barabas, West takes a perverse pride in portraying himself in the worst possible light. As West sings in a track on “Yeezus” (a song entitled “Black Skinhead”), “I’m aware I’m a wolf.” Nevertheless, the production ends with a bizarrely upbeat and redemptive twist, with the actors donning masks with the faces of the presidential hopefuls; they all magically unite around one of these candidates and garner overwhelming bipartisan support.
Amon, the sound designer for “Jew vs. Malta,” explained that he used “audio painting” to fuse sound clips (some of which last no longer than a second) from 1960s toy commercials (such as for Rock’em Sock’em Robots), contemporary YouTube videos of conspiracy theorists, and “Fiddler on the Roof” songs. As a result, he said, “your ear is pulled in all sorts of directions and you often don’t know what you’re hearing.” Nevertheless, he said, “the connective tissue is paranoia. Barabas and West always seem to feel that someone is talking about them.”
Rakia Seaborn, who is African-American and hails from Detroit, plays multiple roles in “Jew vs. Malta.” Interviewed after the first performance last weekend, she said that she sees “Yeezus” as an “expression of West’s id, his frustration at being locked out of certain rooms and knowing that he will never be accepted.” This is the same thing that Barabas encounters, she pointed out, “as the best businessman in Malta” who is ostracized because he is Jewish.
In the end, Seaborn said, the play asks “if, in politics, anyone has clean hands, even when politicians are allegedly doing things for the people.”
The play layers snippets of dialogue, lyrics and musical phrases on top of one another.
“Jew vs. Malta” plays through this weekend at LaMaMa E.T.C., 74A E. Fourth St. It runs Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. For tickets, $20, visit lamama.org.