Bob Goepfert: Telling Stories Of Those Without A Voice
TROY – In the world of theater there has hardly been an organization that hasn’t expressed regrets about not having done enough to tell the stories of people of color.
If, on the local level, anyone has a right to say, “I told you so,” it is Jean-Remy Monnay, the producing artistic-director of The Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate N.Y. He’s one of those unique people who is known to all by one name - Remy.
Since 2009, Remy has been producing plays dedicated to telling the stories of people of color. In the process, he has trained numerous black actors and developed a minority audience that didn’t exist before he and a friend started Soul Rebel Performance Troupe in 2009. In 2011, Soul Rebel disbanded, and Remy started the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate, NY.
Except for a couple of years of performing in a Watervliet church, now unavailable because of building repairs, the company is without a permanent home. They’ve been performing at both the Masonic Lodge in Albany and the Meader Little Theatre on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy.
Remy was born and raised in Haiti and moved to Brooklyn as a teenager. As a young adult, he moved to the Capital Region. His first time on stage was at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY. At the time, he could barely speak English. However, he persevered, got larger roles and he became fluid in his adopted tongue.
As he found his voice, he began to realize two things. There were few plays being produced in the region that told stories that related directly to him and other individuals of color.
The other thing was that he started getting calls from almost every local theater company who needed a black actor. He admits the attention was flattering.
But, with his trademark humble laugh, he adds, “I also realized that part of the reason I was in demand was there were very few actors of color in the area.”
He set out to change that by founding his own theater company. Ha says he had two goals. One was to tell stories about the history of people like himself. The other was to build an audience who wanted and needed to hear stories about their lives that couldn’t be found on area stages.
Remy also realized for those stories to have resonance, the audience needed to see faces of people of color on stage. “People want to recognize both the stories and the people telling them,” he says.
About his choice of plays, the only thing he insists on is the central character is a person of color. He prefers plays that have a provocative theme or show injustice.
Since Remy is a gentle man of peace, he resists works that are driven by anger. He prefers theater that makes you think. “We might make you feel uncomfortable, but you will never be offended at one of our plays,” he insists.
He points out that when he first started his audiences were “about 90% white.” He estimates it is now 50-50. He’s successfully building an audience of people who never saw their stories on stage and developed dozens of black actors who had never dreamed of performing in the process.
However, what certainly seems a success story does have its frustrations. Those frustrations are tied into the national discussion of the black community being treated as invisible by the white community.
He says, he is disappointed that he get calls from other theater companies only when they want him to direct a play about minorities. His actors get calls when the script calls for a specifically black character. He asks, “Where are those calls asking for a good director and good actors in mainstream plays? Good is good. Diversity is good. It is my hope that people of color will be seen more frequently on every stage in the area.”
When we spoke about the amount of plays that are certain to be written about today’s social unrest, he had a piece of advice for white writers wanting to write those plays. “Speak and listen to black members of the community before writing.” His reasoning is, “If they don’t, we’re going to have lot of plays written about white guilt, not social reality or change.”
Remy admits to being a very private man. “I speak through theater,” he says. But in an unguarded moment, he describes the social realities of a black man.
“If I go out, I always dress neat and formal rather than casual. Even when I go to the doctor, I make sure I wear a suit and tie, even though every white person in the office is in shorts and a tee shirt. I make sure all my paperwork is on the front seat, so if stopped I don’t have to reach into the glove compartment. And I always prepare a speech to explain why I am where I am.”
Despite these fears, Remy remains a man who wants to explain and heal our differences - not rant about them. His language is theater, and he hopes he will soon be able to tell the stores he feels are both important and healing.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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