Interview by: Paulanne Simmons
In 2009 when Ty Jones became artistic director and a member of the board at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, the organization was in financial distress and had lost the confidence of many supporters. Six years later, thanks to the energy and perseverance of Jones and others, the organization has attracted major donors and has embarked on a healthy program of artistic endeavors.
Jones says CTH’s season will be based on three anchor productions: a family friendly holiday show in winter, an issue-related show in spring, and a free outdoor summer production in the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park. This year, however, will be a little different.
The 2015 season begins with the 15th Anniversary Celebration and Benefit Concert on April 13. It will feature the New York City premiere of Witness Uganda in Concert at the Apollo Theater Soundstage. Witness Uganda is a musical written by two Harlem artists, Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould. It documents Matthews’ work and personal growth educating children in Uganda. The show premiered at the American Repertory Theater, directed by Diane Paulus and has won the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2014 Richard Rodgers Production Award for Musical Theater, ASCAP’s Dean Kay Award and ASCAP’s Harold Adamson Award.
This year there will be no spring production. But the summer production, building on the success of last summer’s well-received hip-hop Romeo and Juliet, will be The Tempest, set on the Island of Hispaniola.
For the winter show, CTH has commissioned composer/lyricist Jason Michael Webb and writer/lyricist Lelund Durond Thompson to create what Jones calls “Dickens for the 21st century.” The holiday musical is titled The First Noel and follows three generations of a Harlem family affected by the tragic loss of a loved one.
Harlem, once an independent village in the upper reaches of Manhattan, has gone through many changes since it was organized by the Dutch in 1658. Its current gentrification presents both challenges and possibilities for the Classical Theatre of Harlem. And no one is more aware of this than Jones.
“We are part of the renovation of the community,” he says. “We want to engage with the community.”
Jones believes a more diverse neighborhood reflects changes happening in the world and the artistic community. “We are more alike than different,” he says. “We need to find a way to connect.”
For Jones, the way to do that is by making the Classical Theatre of Harlem “the next great American theater company.”