Harlem theater troupe finds audience outside its home turf

— Black actors coax a white woman from the audience to the stage. There, bathed in awkwardness, she reluctantly launches into a minstrel dance.

"Come on," the actor who pulled her onstage says with equal measures of reassurance and contempt as the woman tries to perform the stereotypical dance from slavery and the Jim Crow era, "somebody must have told you about this show."

Off-Broadway theatergoers -- forewarned and otherwise -- are learning firsthand about "The Blacks: A Clown Show," Jean Genet's unforgiving and explosive examination of race relations that scoffs at the boundaries of the actor-audience relationship.

The play opened March 13 at the East 13th Street Theatre, becoming the first Classical Theatre of Harlem production to travel beyond the company's resident stage uptown at the Harlem School of the Arts. It closes April 6.

According to artistic director and co-founder, Alfred Preisser, the transfer of "The Blacks" to reach a wider audience was only a matter of time.

"We talked about this with a couple of other productions that were running to capacity houses when they closed," he says. For various reasons, those transfers never happened.

"The Blacks," the four-year-old company's 14th production, ran in Harlem for four weeks earlier this year, and Preisser says they were filled to capacity each night and had to turn back dozens of people.

"We were adding seats. We were doing everything possible to get everyone in here who wanted to see the play," he says.

A 'sensation'

Besides managing the physical restraints of a small theater, the company shares the space with HSA students. So, the play had to leave the theater.

The company thought it might be possible to continue "The Blacks" downtown and find a new audience for it, Preisser says. But the move wasn't made just because "The Blacks" caused a "sensation" when it first opened downtown in 1961.

The original New York production of Genet's controversial play ran off-Broadway for four years with casts that included Maya Angelou, Louis Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.

The most recent staging of "The Blacks" is directed by Christopher McElroen, who co-founded the Classical Theatre of Harlem with Preisser and serves as the company's executive director.

McElroen didn't fashion his revival after the original production. What the two versions have in common, he says, is "the confrontational nature, and Genet writes that right in the beginning of the script."

The playwright's instructions call for at least one white audience member seated in the front row at every performance. The players lead people to their seats as they enter, but the mood becomes increasingly uneasy once the show starts.

"It's not a play that just presents a thesis about racism or anti-Semitism or any of these things," Preisser says. "It's a play that confronts the audience and asks for a response, right there in real time. 'How are you feeling right now? I'm looking right at you."'

McElroen recalls how an elderly white couple from Park Avenue and 72nd Street made their first-ever trip to Harlem to see the play, after having read about it. When they arrived, the woman explained that her husband is 86 years old and asked for assurance that nothing would be thrown at him.

"So they knew that they were coming up to be abused on some level," McElroen says.

In-your-face approach

This in-your-face approach can make for a tense evening at the theater. J. Kyle Manzay, who plays Village -- one of the play's principal antagonists -- says he tries to be "as real and raw as I can." There have been performances, he says, when "audience members have spoken out and said 'that's enough,' or when it seems like the play is out of control."

So far, though, the uneasiness hasn't sprouted into anything more serious than a spontaneous debate between audience and cast members about the meaning of the play.

"This is, by far, the most difficult play any of them will ever work on," McElroen says of his troupe. "There's no linear movement to the story line -- the physical nature, the confrontational nature. They're just an amazing group of young actors who believe in this play and are willing to go to places (we) know absolutely nothing about." Both McElroen and Preisser are white while the actors are black.

At times during rehearsal, the 26-year-old Manzay says, the fact that his director is white crosses his mind -- "when the frustration starts to roll out and you're talking about hate.

"It's come up, but Chris and the cast members have handled themselves very well."

Ty Jones, 30, who plays Archibald, downplayed ethnic differences: "The fact that Chris is white is inconsequential to us doing the show. To me, the play is much more about class issues and issues of power."

This is the first time Jones has worked with the CTH. He appreciates that the company gives black actors a chance to play lead roles in classical plays. McElroen and Preisser, who are both on the faculty at the Harlem School of the Arts, say diversity is a critical tenet of the group.

"We want to make theater that looks like the New York City subway car -- that's as diverse as the city we live in," McElroen says. "If you go downtown to see theater, that's not represented on stage."


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