The Collegian
Thursday, October 01, 2020

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Students and community members perform "The Merchant of Venice"

The lights dimmed and an anticipatory silence fell upon the audience. The silhouettes of the actors and actresses moved on stage. Then one of them walked into a table, knocked over a glass and a peel of childish giggles erupted from their lips.

Jepson leadership students joined with inner-city schoolchildren and people from the local community to perform a unique version of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" on Friday night at University of Richmond.

Students enrolled in Leadership through Stage and Screen sourced the actors and actresses from Henderson Middle School, the Peter Paul Development Center and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond, which offers classes for students over the age of 50.

The play, which possesses aspects of anti-semitism, was not used as an example of good leadership. "The students have to engage in practical leadership skills in the process of putting on this show," said Kristin Bezio, who teaches the class.

"The Merchant of Venice is an anti-semitic play," Bezio said. "They're wrestling with how to explain that, especially the groups working with kids."

The class was split into groups, with each taking one of the play's five acts. Two groups worked with adults from the Osher Institute and two with children from Henderson Middle School and the Peter Paul Development Center.

"They're very sassy and they tell you how it is," Anna Fetter, a student in the class, said. "The kids are really, really fun though. When you're between fifth and eighth grade you're full of energy and we did have to set boundaries."

"My favorite part of this is the costume," said Antione F. Jr., an eighth grader. "I get to wear a pirate hat and a sword."

Most of the children were from an under-privileged background and for some, this was their first encounter with Shakespeare. "They were able to grapple with something that is supposedly beyond their grasp," Bezio said. "It's high-culture, it's highly educated, but they can handle it."

"Certain words they use I didn't really understand," said Devine P., who played the part of Shylock, "but then I started to understand them. The directors were real patient."

The cast has been rehearsing regularly since the beginning of October, but the levels of attendance was inconsistent. "Sadly I missed the first two rehearsals because I was in hospital" said William Bailey, a student with the Osher Institute.

The performance was held in the Cousins Studio Theatre in the Modlin Center. It was filled with a mixture of students, community members and parents.

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Bezio has a background in theatre, mostly in Shakespeare and other early modern plays. She has a degree in early modern drama and is a "Shakespeare scholar by trade," she said.

"It was really sweet to hang out with the children" said Leo Strauss, a student in the play. "Their youthful energy and unblemished wit made it an honor to work alongside them. The senior citizens brought a level of professionalism to the matter."

Contact reporter George Robb at george.robb@richmond.edu

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