Traditionally, July is the kick off period for the summer arts season. And this year, it again signals an active time for area professional theater.
This week alone has some really diverse productions that are offered for their entertainment values while addressing social issues within their content.
For instance, Park Playhouse opens the musical revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’ this Tuesday, July 6. It features the music of Fats Waller, a black composer/musician who was popular in the New York City nightclub scene of the 1920s and 30s.
The original production in 1978 did not shy away from the racial issues that plagued Black musicians of that era. However, the show was more remembered as a popular entertainment-based show than it was its social significance.
Because today issues of race are more front and forward, to offer the work without paying attention to the inequitable treatment of the African-American population in our society would be negligent. To be certain, the issue isn’t overlooked in this effort as Park Playhouse asked Jean Remy-Monnay, who everyone knows simply as Remy, to direct the production.
Remy is the founder of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York and for over a decade the organization has been dedicated to telling Black stories to mostly Black audiences. At the same time, Remy trained a generation of actors of color who can populate area stages in all types of roles. Indeed, in a recent interview Remy said to me, he accepted to direct “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the condition that local auditions would be held so area performers could land a role. He is overjoyed that four of the five people in the cast are local.
Everyone involved in the production, especially Park Playhouse producing-artistic director Owen Smith, realizes Park Playhouse audiences, most of whom are admitted free of charge, come to the downtown Albany amphitheater in Washington Park for an evening of relaxing fun. He also recognizes that Park Playhouse has an obligation to serve minority audiences.
It is Remy’s hope that audiences will leave enlightened as well as entertained. He says he tells the actors when they aren’t singing they should be thinking not only about the words and music, but also how it felt to be performing for a white audience at a place like the Waldorf Astoria and yet not be permitted to step foot in the lobby when they were finished. His theory is that if the performers understand the emotions that are underneath the joyous performances, so will the audiences.
Included in the show is “Black and Blue,” which contains the lyrics, “Cause you’re black, folks think you lack. They laugh at you, scorn you too. What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Remy knows the song alone will move the audience, but he points out it deliberately follows “Fat and Greasy.” His point is “Fat and Greasy” encourages people to laugh at jokes that insult. When it is followed by “Black and Blue,” the audience connects the two numbers to be aware of the cruel depreciation Blacks are subject to on a constant basis.
His goal for the audience is the same as his own experience with the music of Fats Waller. He says, “I’ve always listened to his music, but I never really listened.” At Park Playhouse, audiences will get a chance to listen to songs written 80 and 90 years ago that still speak to today’s problems. It is offered free of charge through July 24.
Williamstown Theatre Festival is also opening their season with a series of short works designed to find an audience for Black voices. “Outside on Main: Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays” begins performances on Tuesday, July 6. It is a series of nine solo plays written by Black playwrights and performed by actors of color They are offered in three packages of three plays, running approximately 90-minutes a show. They will be presented on the front lawn of the main stage theater through July 25.
Also opening this week is “Man of La Mancha,” better known as “The Impossible Dream Musical”. If ever there was a play that deserved to be called inspirational it’s this musical tale of Don Quixote and his quest to right every wrong. It’s offered by Opera Saratoga in the amphitheater of SPAC. It plays evenings Thursday to Saturday.
Too, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA opens a production of “King Lear,” which was originally scheduled for last year. The Shakespeare play is about a powerful king who is betrayed, humiliated and driven crazy by the selfish behavior of two of his three daughters. It stars Christopher Lloyd in the title role. Most people think of Lloyd from either the television series “Taxi” or the “Back to the Future” films. Actually, he is a trained classical actor, who is dedicated to the stage. It opens Friday July 9 and continues through August 28.
If the entire summer is as good as the first week in July, it could be a very good season.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.