75 Morton school principal Valerie Leak cancels 'Merchant of Venice' for antisemitic theme
The principal of a middle school in Manhattan has canceled its production of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' after some parents expressed concern over its antisemitic theme and whether the material was appropriate for middle schoolers.
The first-year principal Valerie Leak scrapped the play without any warning or prior discussion. The play was set to be performed by the seventh-grade drama students at 75 Morton in New York, which is a popular middle school in Greenwich Village.
Valerie Leak is the first year principal of 75 Morton school and she works under the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE). She is also a literacy coach. Under her leadership, 75 Morton has a gender and sexuality alliance committee and a Black Student Union to build a more inclusive school environment. Leak often sends messages about helping others and working for others in her letters which is updated on the school website.
A report by the New York Post says, there was a divide between parents at the school, with some calling for the play's cancelation and others wanting to open a dialogue about the themes of the play. The news of play's cancelation comes after a Tennessee school board scrapped the Holocaust-themed graphic novel, Maus, voting unanimously to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book from its eighth-grade curriculum over a drawing of a nude woman, eight swear words and its 'not wise or healthy' content. This has lead to some controversy and some heated opinions.
Now, the Greenwich Village school is also embroiled in a controversy over the 16th-century Shakespeare classic about a merchant in Venice named Antonio who defaults on a large loan provided by a Jewish money lender named Shylock — a term that has come to be considered an antisemitic slur.
A few Jewish parents asked administrators if the material was appropriate for middle schoolers. "The way that antisemitism is shown in this play, if you don't have a minimum of knowledge and context you can't understand how bad and dangerous it is," a member of the school community told The Post.
Valerie Leak had reportedly pledged to hold meetings with parents to discuss the matter, school sources told The Post. She was also expected to meet with drama teachers and members of the Theater for a New Audience, the Manhattan-based group that collaborates with the school to produce the plays.
But these discussions never happened, and the play was just abruptly canceled. Instead of a proper discussion or meeting, parents received an email from the school last month explaining the cancelation. "Members of our community have expressed their objection to this play due to concerns about racist and antisemitic language. And while the company designed the curriculum with input from the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) to ensure that the challenging themes of the piece would be treated with the proper critical analysis, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness, we have decided to move forward with a different unit with the Theater."
Joe Sherinsky, one of the parents at the school, told The Post that by cancelling the production, the principal missed a 'teachable moment.' "I think it needs to be properly contextualized," he said. "There are great lessons in the Merchant of Venice. You can takes names like Shylock and apply them broadly into lessons about racism. But in order to teach that properly you need to have enough context as parents to say that this is something good for the school to do." He has praised Leak overall, but said he would have liked a more meaningful exchange on the issue. But as of now, instead of selecting a new production, the school has opted to focus on a playwriting curriculum.