Classic Theater of Harlem’s new season
When Puck casts his magic spell over love besotted royalty and fairies in Shakespeare’s joyful A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the splendid new Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park July 13-30, the setting won’t be ancient Greece nor the music Elizabethan. Thanks to the brilliant Classic Theater of Harlem, Harlem is getting its own Shakespeare in its own park this summer, with poetic language intact but many other aspects of the play changed. “I wanted to go beyond the idea of simply having a color blind cast,” says the artistic director, Justin Emeka, recently, on the phone as he rushed to a rehearsal, “and change the play’s cultural aesthetic to African American, West African and Caribbean, to reflect Harlem. To incorporate our culture into the story.”
An actor, writer, capoeirista and professor of theater and Africana Studies at Oberlin College, Emeka has had extensive theatrical experience, having directed The Glass Menagerie, Dutchman, A Raisin in the Sun and many other plays. Not new to shaking things up, he cast Avery Brooks as the lead in Death of a Salesman and set King Lear among the Olmec people who lived in Mesopotamia from 1200 – 400 B.C. “It’s incredible what happens to plays when you alter the culture,” he says. “It often cracks open a whole new way of seeing them. You look through another lens. This is how theater is going now. They’re so many ways that haven’t been explored.”
In the two years Emeka spent adapting this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he found a natural match for Puck’s tricks and magic in aspects of African cosmology and Yoruba traditions. Naturally, the music and dance had to reflect the same culture. Michael Wimberley, a drummer, percussionist and composer, who has worked with many dance companies, including Urban Bush Women, created a soundscape. He blended pop and Angolan rhythms and featured the berimbau as well as hip-hop and the music of R&B singer, D’Angelo, a favorite of Emeka’s. “I developed thematic material for each character,” he says. “My goal was to see the actors as musicians, so I got them singing on a daily basis, and trying out vocal and body percussion. They’re young and open to the challenge.”
The choreographer Lakai Worrell worked closely with Wimberley, weaving elements of the cultures of the Diaspora into the movement, just as Wimberley did with the music. To make sure it worked with the cast, he first had each of them show him how they moved. “Many weren’t trained dancers and I wanted them to feel comfortable with what I gave them,” he says. He created big, boisterous moves for Bottom and more delicate and lighter moves for the fairies, though, he explains, “there’s a certain power behind them, a deadly, mesmerizing quality that I wanted to get across.”
Actor and writer Ty Jones, the producing artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Obie-award-winning star of The Blacks: A Clown Show, speaks of this production with a zealot’s passion. “Justin has combined extraordinary elements,” he says. “This is the way to expand our audience. We want to show how we attract foot traffic in Harlem, and that the arts employ people, and create a theater that the people of Harlem will want to go to without traveling downtown or to another borough.”
This production and the CTH’s dedication to Harlem impressed the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. It doesn’t give grants for the arts; its mission is to generate business. But Jones and other board members proved that that was exactly what producing high-level theater in the neighborhood would accomplish. For this reason, Verdery Roosevelt, senior vice-president, programs and nonprofit investments at UMEZ, notes that the theater won its support, to the tune of $312,000, to invest in infrastructure, marketing and education. “It was their vision that thrilled us,” she says.
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