The “Henry V” that begins this Friday in the newly renovated amphitheater at Mount Morris Park is quintessential Classical Theater of Harlem: a gritty, hyperactive production of a Shakespearean drama, featuring a mostly black cast. Not as apparent are the lofty ambitions this play (and the company’s other plans) represent, or the daunting hurdles it faces.
“Henry V” is Classical Theater of Harlem’s first full-scale production in nearly two years, since its founders departed after friction with the board. And the company is kicking off its new life in debt, with no endowment or permanent home, and dependent on corporate, foundation and government financing at a time when such money is harder than ever to come by.
“Everything depends on ‘Henry V’; folks can see the high caliber of the new leadership,” said Ty Jones, a playwright and Obie-award winning veteran of the company who plays King Henry in the new production and is also the theater’s producing director and board chairman.
“I think Classical Theater can be to Harlem what Lincoln Center is uptown and what the Public is to downtown,” Mr. Jones, 41, added after a recent rehearsal.
In its first incarnation, as in its second, Classical Theater’s mission was to bring its versions of the classics to a changing Harlem and nurture new, diverse audiences. Founded in 1999, it presented dozens of productions over a decade, including an audacious mix of Shakespeare; black classics like “Funny House of a Negro”; and even a post-Katrina version of “Waiting for Godot.” It won awards, critical acclaim and provided opportunities for hundreds of actors. Its stars, like Wendell Pierce (“Treme” and “The Wire”), helped bring crowds to Harlem, which has become wealthier and whiter in recent years.
The theater started with about $9,000 from its founders, Alfred Preisser, the artistic director, and Christopher McElroen, its executive director. The two mounted most of the productions while in residence at the Harlem School of the Arts, where they worked.
Mr. Preisser, still a theater director, said recently that he parted ways with the company in November 2009 because he no longer believed that “institutional theater” allowed him to produce his best work and because he had grown tired of working with the board.
In an e-mail Mr. McElroen wrote that he was “puzzled and saddened” by the organization’s “discrediting” the theater’s accomplishments under his and Mr. Preisser’s leadership. Mr. Jones said those accomplishments were never discredited. Both Mr. Preisser and Mr. McElroen said they wished the company well.
The founders resigned because of continuing disputes with the board over issues of accountability, Mr. Jones said. “Things were done without explanation,” he said. “The core of the friction can be seen in the comment that Alfred made” about institutional theater, he added. But Mr. Jones and the seven other board members, who essentially serve as the staff, have vowed to keep the theater going. They have begun a new program to work with youth in Harlem housing projects and have continued a program of readings to support emerging minority playwrights. A free reading of Walter Mosley’s new play, “Lift,” drew about 200 people last month.
The free performances of “Henry V” this Friday and Saturday in the park are an appetizer for its formal premiere on Wednesday (with a Monday preview) at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center, where it will be performed through Sept. 4.
“Seed,” a play by Radha Blank about a social worker in the newly gentrified Harlem, begins with a free dress rehearsal on Sept. 6 at the National Black Theater (the official opening is Sept. 10), where it will be performed through Oct. 9. It is co-produced with Hip-Hop Theater Festival of New York, a performing arts company, and partly financed by a $90,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tickets for each show will range from $20 to $48, with group discounts available. For this fiscal year the company has a budget of $685,992 and is $172,000 in debt.
In the past few months Mr. Jones and the board have reintroduced themselves and their plans to the city’s political and cultural leadership. Those plans call for seeking an admittedly ambitious grant of some $1 million (over five years) from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; hiring a staff; and presenting up to four full-scale professional productions a year by 2014. They are counting on a home at the long-vacant Victoria Theater on West 125th Street, which is being redeveloped into a cultural center.
“The community of Harlem really wants them to succeed,” said Freedome Bradley, the director of theatrical programs for SummerStage, which is under the auspices of the City Parks Foundation. “There’s a lot of pride that comes from a company called Classical Theater of Harlem. You have this launch — or soft launch — in the heart of Harlem, and you stick your flag there. There’s a new energy level. I think people will be excited to get behind them — I know I was.”
Bringing together a savvy board, management expertise and a healthy individual donor base are common challenges, said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts who also is a consultant for nonprofit performing arts organizations.
“I think the changes in Harlem represent an opportunity for Classical Theater of Harlem,” Mr. Kaiser said. “There is more wealth in Harlem. There is interest in Harlem as a place to be and a place to raise a family.”
The company’s rebirth could hinge on “surprising art,” making people feel a part of the enterprise with offerings like open rehearsals, as well as increased visibility and joint ventures with larger organizations, he said.
Mr. Jones’s desire to see Classical Theater incubate works that can move on to Broadway and Off Broadway could get a shot with the play “Breathin’ and Hopin,’ ” by Maximillian Gaspard, an emerging playwright. A planned co-production with Mr. Pierce, it is based on the true story of George Junius Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old sent to the electric chair in 1944 by the State of South Carolina. This black youth (so small that he could not be properly strapped into the electric chair) was charged with killing two young white girls in a highly controversial case.
Mr. Pierce said he brought the play to Classical Theater of Harlem because “over the years it gave me an opportunity to do the work I was trained to do at Julliard and to mine the pool of talent of color that is underutilized around the country,” he said.
Mr. Jones said he was confident that support exists. The play will get another public airing Aug. 27 through 29, with performances at East River Park on the Lower East Side.
“I believe that this company has been able to do what it has done on the backs of young, passionate artists of color,” Mr. Jones said, “and we will not let them down.”