Volume 80, Number 33 | January 13 - 19, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL
Seven new works by emerging artists
At the Metropolitan Playhouse
(in the Cornelia Connelly Center: 220 E. Fourth St. btw. Aves. A & B)
Tickets: $15-$18 per program
(four shows for $50)
For reservations and a schedule,
Rooted in past, Metropolitan eyes emerging talent
Harlem Renaissance Fest features seven to watch
BY MARTIN DENTON (of nytheatRE.com)
As a history buff, I’ve always been fascinated by the way that drama can teach us about our collective past. And I’m not talking just about history plays. “The Boys in the Band” and “Angels in America” — to pick two somewhat related examples, have much more to tell us about our country’s culture and attitudes at a particular political/historical moment than, say, “Sunrise at Campobello” or “Frost/Nixon” (and they do so much more vividly, too).
So a theatre company devoted to exploring the American past to see what it has to teach us about our American present feels like a godsend to me, which is why I’ve always been such a huge fan of Metropolitan Playhouse. They’ve been around for 19 seasons now — and for the past 11, they’ve been led by artistic director Alex Roe. He describes the company’s mission this way:
Guiding the company’s growth has been a clear vision of the rich portrait that theater paints of the culture that creates it. Reflecting society’s values, aspirations, and character, theater offers, as does no other art, a doubly rich perspective.…Connecting us with our past in the light of our present, America’s theater gives invaluable insight into our cultural identity.
Metropolitan presents four mainstage productions every season in their cozy theatre space on East 4th Street in Alphabet City (located on the second floor of the Cornelia Connelly Center, which is also home to the Connelly Theater). Over the years, they’ve scoured the American canon as no other company in New York has done, looking for work from the early 20th, 19th and even 18th century that will enlighten and entertain 21st-century audiences — simply by letting us see what our great-great-grandparents saw when they went to the theatre.
Thanks to Roe and his colleagues at Metropolitan, New Yorkers have had a chance to sample famous old plays like “Fashion” by Anna Cora Mowatt and “The Octoroon” by Dion Boucicault; lost works that were stupendously popular in their day like William Gillette’s “Secret Service” or curiosities like “Metamora” by John Augustus Stone — and more contemporary neglected pieces, as in “The Pioneer” (which was a compendium of five very early plays, pre-“Beyond the Horizon” of Eugene O’Neill). So far this season they’ve brought us back to ante-bellum New York City with a rousing rendition of W.H. Smith’s temperance “The Drunkard” and to the American South of the same era with a clear-eyed look at George Aiken’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
What makes Metropolitan’s productions so valuable is that they are never edited, camped up or otherwise “fixed.” You’ll find no Alan Gribben-style rewrites of these plays, which Roe and company steadfastly present in unexpurgated form, warts and all, laying bare what’s dated or discomfiting in these works without comment. Thus, we learn how much things have changed in American popular culture over the years — and sometimes, joltingly, how little.
Lest I’ve led you to think that Metropolitan Playhouse is a one-trick pony sort of theatre company, I hasten to add now that in addition to their mainstage productions each year, they produce several other ongoing series. They’ve been mounting at least a couple of family shows geared for children every year for quite some time now; usually these have an interactive bent that helps youngsters appreciate how immersive and engaging the theatre experience can be.
Metropolitan also sponsors two summertime festivals, both of which tie them directly to their home community: “East Village Chronicles” is an annual program of new short plays inspired by events, people and locations in the neighborhood; and “Alphabet City Monologues” are short solo performance pieces created from interviews with local personalities, some famous, some not. These two sets of original American plays illuminate the past and present life of the vibrant and historic section of New York City that Metropolitan Playhouse is part of; they connect the community to the theatre and the audience to the community in a visceral, thrilling way. They also provide opportunities for Metropolitan — a company mostly rooted in the past — to work with contemporary and emerging playwrights and theatre artists and help them develop their craft. Some of the folks who have gone through “East Village Chronicles” Alphabet City Monologues include indie theater luminaries like Trav S.D., Anthony P. Pennino, Tim Cusack, Lisa Barnes and Qui Nguyen.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Metropolitan combines aspects of their summer festival initiative and their mainstage season in an annual wintertime extravaganza known as the Living Literature Festival. Now in its sixth year, this highly anticipated January event brings to audiences new works inspired by the lives, thoughts and writings of important figures from America’s literary past. Prior years have celebrated Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe and notable women writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
This year, from January 17 through January 30, Metropolitan will present the “Harlem Renaissance Festival” — comprising seven premiere works by cutting edge artists inspired by the life and writings of the dynamic artists who defined the Harlem Renaissance. Among those whose work will be explored are poets Langston Hughes, Georgia Doulas Johnson, Countee Cullen, Angelina Grimke and Paul Laurence Dunbar; composers Duke Ellington and Fats Waller; journalist and activist Marcus Garvey; as well as surprising personages such as enterprising purveyor of good eats, Pig Foot Mary, and librarian Belle da Costa Greene — first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library. Bringing these figures to life will be indie artists Danny Ashkenasi, Leah Maddrie, Daniel Carlton, David Lally, Juliane Haim, Xoregos Performing Company and students from the Newburgh Performing Arts Academy.
As in previous years, the plays will be presented in short evenings, 90 minutes or so in length. There are seven different programs in the Harlem Renaissance Festival, each scheduled for four performances.
All of Metropolitan’s programming serves the important dual purposes of entertaining a diverse audience and bringing them a deep and renewed understanding of who we are. Metropolitan Playhouse is a cornerstone of the East Village community, one that we hope will endure for many years to come.