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Curtain Up on Vibrant Theater Scene in Jersey City


Is Jersey City becoming the Garden State version of Manhattan’s West Village?

That’s the opinion of one entertainment expert anyway.

John McEwen, executive director of the New Jersey State Theatre Alliance, believes that Jersey City is offering something special on stage as well as in music and art.

“There’s something there for everybody,” McEwen says, “due in large part to exciting cultural offerings.

“The heartbeat there is similar to what you might find in the Village in New York. There’s a young, vibrant feeling there. The city’s image has turned around quite a bit, artists are finding homes, theater organizations are cropping up and doing unique work that fits into that vibe. I do hear a lot of people talking about the arts in Jersey City. Art is making that city tick. A lot of businesses are moving in, there’s a sense of pride in the residents, and that will only grow in time.”

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Jersey City was home to professional vaudeville houses, like the old eight-tier Majestic Theatre that once stood opposite City Hall, where even New Yorkers trooped to see luminaries like W.C. Fields, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, and George M. Cohan tread the boards.

But what—at least for now—may be missing in terms of infrastructure and top-name billing is being compensated for by the vibrancy and innovation of the many theatrical companies and their offerings.

Whether it’s the current Art House multimedia production of Reid Farrington’s A Christmas Carol or Speranza Theatre Company’s Women’s Writer Series or Jersey City Theater Center’s politically tinged Lines in the Dust, local stage groups are daring to push the boundaries.

As city Cultural Affairs Director Christine Goodman sees it, these and other local companies are delivering “fresh, vibrant, immersive, and original new takes on timeless tales.”

It’s that kind of theatrical fare that’s more likely to draw regional audiences than not, Goodman says. “You can only see the Rockettes so many times before wanting to see something different, and the work being produced here is different and exciting, and it’s something we’re proud of.”

That being said, the companies that are making a go of it now didn’t pop up overnight: It took each of them time to find and secure performance space, a distinct identity and audience, and monetary support before they could start to breathe and contemplate a sustainable future.

For Olga Levina, co-founder and artistic director of Jersey City Theater Center (JCTC), the long and winding path to Jersey City began in Belarus where she “grew up with a love for theater” fostered by her mother, a professional actress.

She and her nonprofit company (founded in 2006) are located on the second floor of a converted warehouse at 339-345 Newark Ave. that houses a 1,500-square-foot flex-performance space, a black box theater, an art gallery, and 10 private art studios all supported by an annual operating budget of $250,000.

JCTC’s mission, according to Levina, is to stage “political” theater and other arts events by developing a “thematic series concept … global in scope and relevant to the community.” In addition to plays, JCTC puts on arts shows, dance performances, and readings. Themes the company explores include justice, happiness, origins, vanity, borders, disruption, and fear.

Levina has hosted groups from Italy, Slovakia, Poland and Spain along with regional artists. JCTC’s most recent theatrical offering, Lines in the Dust, by Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Nikkole Salter, was co-produced with New Jersey City University and was a contemporary look at race, class and inequality in public education.

Another upcoming JCTC production, Run-On Sentence, by New Jersey playwright Stacie Lents, is about women in prison. Lents based her work on her experience working with incarcerated women through Prison Performing Arts of St. Louis, Mo.

From its humble beginnings in 2001 in a makeshift space at the (now-demolished) St. Francis Hospital in Hamilton Park, to its roomy digs at Cast Iron Lofts on 17th St., Art House has established itself as a steadfast producer of performing and visual arts.

“A Christmas Carol” courtesy Art House Productions

Among the more recent stage productions it has hosted are The Box Show featuring writer/performer Dominique Salerno and no fewer than 30 characters; The Artemisia’s Intent, created and performed by The Anthropologists, depicting—largely through movement—the life, work and words of 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi; and Reid Farrington’s A Christmas Carol, a co-production of Art House and Foxy Films, described as a “live mash-up of nearly every movie version of the Dickens piece ever made.”

“We present work that straddles the accessible and the avant-garde,” said Art House Executive Director Meredith Burns. The company’s focus, she said, is “to find diverse works by women and artists of color wherever possible.” Theatrical pieces like A Christmas Carol that feature projections and multi-media effects are also invited. “A lot of our pieces have that bent,” Burns said.

The non-profit venture, which employs two full-time staffers and runs on a yearly operating budget that Burns puts at “just under $500,000,” also sponsors “JC Fridays,” a quarterly seasonal arts festival that features between 30 and 50 events at different venues citywide;  comedy and dance festivals; and INKubator New Play Festival that invites submissions of new works by emerging playwrights from which six are picked for production every May.

Art House is on schedule for yet another move in fall 2021 to the new residential tower going up at 184 Morgan St., just one-half block from the Grove Street PATH Station. There it will hold forth with a 99-seat flex-box theater, art gallery, and administrative offices.

Two other local theater companies that use various performance venues are Speranza Theatre Company and No Dominion Theatre Co.

Speranza has two full-time and one part-time employee and operates  from Journal Square with a $50,000 annual budget.  The company’s mission is “to create thought-provoking collaborative theater centered on women’s issues, providing an opportunity for artists, particularly females, to share their voices through challenging and entertaining theater based in honesty and truth.” They have been around since 2008.

Heather Wahl, Speranza’s founding artistic director, said the company’s priority is to hire 50% or more women artists to perform, write and/or design. “I don’t think a lot of theater companies have our focus,” she said. “Most of what we do is original work primarily by women.”

Among those is Diana Basmajian, whose works Seasoned and Foodies were produced by Speranza recently.

Wahl said Speranza’s biggest challenge is “finding people of color” to participate. “That voice has been missing, and that was disappointing,” she said.

Despite having no permanent home, “Jersey City welcomed us right away,” Wahl said. Both Art House and JCTC made available their spaces to Speranza and the company has also performed in local colleges, eateries, galleries and even the historic Apple Tree House on Van Wagenen Avenue. “We created collaborations that have helped us grow and kept our overhead low,” said Wahl.

Courtesy No Dominion Theatre Co.

No Dominion co-founder and artistic director Michael Joel said the company (which takes its name from the Dylan Thomas poem “And death shall have no dominion”) sprang from an undertaking by several Montclair State University alums (himself included) to form a theatrical troupe.

Joel and No Dominion co-founder and executive director Kaitlin Overton believe that original theater is the way to go to promote new works in the New Jersey/New York City region. “By cross-collaborating with and fostering artists of multiple unique mediums, we are able to create the type of work that engages, inspires, and thrills diverse audiences,” they say. Much of that work, said Joel, has taken on a political flavor, “given the current state of affairs.”

Registered as a nonprofit in 2015, the group has done story slams citywide as part of the NEA Big Read program and “things sort of snowballed from there,” Joel said. The company recently partnered with McCarter Theatre Center and Princeton Public Library to bring a “story lounge” there and created a theatre slam at JCTC, where it is in residency.

For the new year, the company has big plans: an original opera in the summer and a six-hour political drama penned by Joel that, he said, will be “largely based on the 2016 [presidential] election” in November.

Another theater group, JCity Theater, has been around for over ten years staging a combination of plays by known playwrights such as David Mamet and works by emerging writers. They are also known for their annual holiday show A Tuna Christmas.  Unfortunately, as the founders Clay and Sandy Cockrell are currently on vacation off the grid, Jersey City Times was unable to make contact with them.

Gina Hulings, director of the Hudson County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs and Tourism Development, said she’s buoyed by the current theatrical scene in Jersey City. Her office provides matching funds for state Council on the Arts grants awarded local theater groups. “It’s a very exciting time,” Hulings said, particularly with the predominance of original works being presented locally. “We’re witnessing a resurgence in the arts.”

For example, Hulings said, the recent restoration of the old White Eagle Hall on Newark Avenue has afforded Jersey City a space for presenting special arts-related events and, she added, the county “is finalizing a 10-year cultural development plan” to pinpoint other opportunities for “finding a host facility or pop-up location” that could support theatrical ventures.

Header: Photo courtesy of No Dominion Theatre Co.

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Broadway Review: “Slave Play” at the Golden Theatre


Broadway Review: “Slave Play” at the Golden Theatre (Through Sunday January 19, 2020)

Written by Jeremy O. Harris

Directed by Robert O’Hara

Reviewed by David Roberts

Theatre Reviews Limited

“Slave Play,” currently running on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, reiterates the events on the fourth day of the Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy being held at MacGregor Plantation, a few miles south of Richmond, Virginia. Three couples have signed up for the workshop to engage in the “radical therapy designed to help black partners re-engage intimately with white partners from whom they no longer receive sexual pleasure.” The therapy workshop is designed and organized by Teá (an intrusive and passionate Chalia La Tour), “a mulatto who is studied in her black and her white” and Patricia (a pensive and circumscribed Irene Sofia Lucio), “a light brown woman who knows many lives” – both graduates of Smith College and Yale University and steeped in studies of anhedonia and alexithymia.

In order to fully discover why the three couples are unable to feel pleasure (anhedonia) and why they are unable to describe their own feelings (alexithymia), symptoms of what Teá and Patricia label “Racialized Inhibiting Disorder (RID),” they are required to participate in a carefully structured fantasy play that includes sexual trauma role-playing. This role-playing is designed to work through any trauma a partner “hasn’t completely worked out.”

Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), “a dark black woman unafraid of what she knows she wants” and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan), “a white man and inheritor of more than he knows how to handle” engage in a role-playing between one of Master MacGregor’s overseers and a female slave under his supervision to explore issues of control. Phillip (a contemplative and sensual Sullivan Jones), “a mulatto who still has to learn his color,” and Alana (an intense and self-absorbed Alana McNamara), “a white woman who wants more than the world sees fit to give her,” engage in role-playing between Madame MacGregor and her servant to explore the causes of Phillip’s apparent erectile dysfunction. And Gary (a damaged and introspective Ato Blankson-Wood), “a dark black man whose life has been lived with the full trauma of his color,” and Dustin (an entitled and shameless James Cusati-Moyer), “a white man but the lowest type of white — dingy, an off-white,” engage in role-playing to explore Paul’s inability to reach orgasm.

This role-playing comprises the action in Act I (entitled “Work”). Initially it seems the action is taking place in antebellum Virginia; then it appears the couples are in the present and in a realm of fantasy. This gets confirmed in Act II (called “Process”), when the couples meet with Teá and Patricia (who have been observing the role-playing) to “process the emotional numbing that’s brought us all here together in this room.” It is in this somewhat overly long act that deep-seated white supremacy, shades, colors, race, and “the world’s collective imagination of life in the American South during slavery” are parsed and elucidated.

It is in Act III (“Exorcise”) that all that playwright Jeremy O. Harris has been exploring reaches its explosive and cathartic climax. Things did not go well for Kaneisha and Jim during processing: Jim stopped the role-playing sequence by failing to follow through to the end, and Kaneisha rightly feels betrayed by Jim and identifies his “shutting down” as evidence of his inability to understand “what she needs from him, and how she needs it.” She returns to their room, packs, and plans to leave early. Jim walks in on Kaneisha, and in an electrifying and disquieting scene, resumes the role-playing, continuing this time until she “calls it off” with their “safe word,” “Starbucks,” and shares with Jim, “Thank you, baby. Thank you for listening.” As she did in middle school when facing her OCD and dodging suggestions by her teacher and parents to go into therapy, Kaneisha “made sense of it herself.” Ms. Kalukango and Mr. Nolan deliver deeply emotional and exhaustingly physical performances that shatter the boundaries of conventional theatre. Their intense work in this scene makes resolution possible.

Under Robert O’Hara’s exquisite and deeply sensitive direction, the entire cast gives believable and authentic performances that challenge all the norms defining eroticism, particularly in the discussion of sexuality in “mixed” couples. Persons of color and their white (or “off-white”) partners will and must make sense of these dynamics themselves without the constraints of the “constant psychological warfare of the white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalist system” (as Tea or as Patricia describes it). Clint Ramos’ mirrored scenic design, enhanced by Jiyoun Chang’s subtle lighting design, draws each audience member into the action, which also subtly makes each one complicit.

“‘Slave Play’ is a radical study in American memory, the psychologies of the prized and the oppressed; the grateful and the entitled; who’s top, who’s bottom; who speaks, who can’t, and who betta listen,” wrote American poet Morgan Parker. And I would have to agree. “Slave Play” is not for the hard of heart, the hard of “hearing” or the weak in spirit. However, Mr. Harris’ play must be seen as part of the overall process of awakening, healing, and making sense of it all before it is too late.

SLAVE PLAY

“Slave Play” stars Ato Blankson-Wood, James Cusati-Moyer, Sullivan Jones, Joaquina Kalukango, Chalia La Tour, Irene Sofia Lucio, Annie McNamara, and Paul Alexander Nolan. The cast is being understudied by Eboni Flowers, Thomas Keegan, Jakeem Dante Powell, and Elizabeth Stahlmann.

The production team includes Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Jiyoun Chang (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound design and original music), Amauta Marston-Firmino (dramaturg), Byron Easley (movement), Claire Warden (intimacy and fight director), Doug Nevin (production counsel), and Taylor Williams (casting director).

“Slave Play” runs at the Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street) through Sunday, January 19, 2020. For more information about the production, including the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, visit https://slaveplaybroadway.com/. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes; there is no intermission.

Header: James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in “Slave Pay.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Posted courtesy of Theatre Reviews Limited www.theatrereviews.com

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