An Ambitious New Theatre In Ha(a)rlem
The New Haarlem Arts Theatre thinks big in uptown Manhattan
“We’ve set ourselves an ambitious set of goals, and the growing pains have definitely set in.”
The first half of Eugene Nesmith’s statement is indisputable. Just one year after creating the New Haarlem Arts Theatre, a theatre in residence at City College of New York, he has considerably expanded its scope. Along with a second summer season of two fully staged works—one play, one musical—New Haarlem has also added a family show and three staged readings, all of which expands the company’s mission to establish a thriving professional theatre in uptown Manhattan.
That’s where the second half of Nesmith’s quote comes in.
“You really need to get the business and funding stuff together quickly to be self-sustaining, and that’s what we’re coming up against,” he says, adding that he is in the process of building a five-year business plan and looking for a managing director to help him execute it. “But the road is rockier this season, to say the least.”
For now, he is primarily concerned with directing New Haarlem’s first show this summer, the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now running at Aaron Davis Hall. In keeping with the company’s mandate to involve City College students, undergraduates make up about a third of the cast. (They are also assisting on sets, lighting, and other technical aspects of the show.)
Nesmith, who is also the chairman of City College’s theatre and speech department, has long used diverse casts in his pieces there and elsewhere. He says, “I believe in nontraditional casting. I believe in color-blind casting. I believe in cross-gender casting. That’s the way we need to go if we want to continue to represent the American spectrum. If we’re going to work within these constricted lines of race, we will never achieve genuine parity.”
However, when it came to directing Ma Rainey, Wilson’s 1982 drama about a blues band waiting to record with the title character in a Chicago studio, those impulses were held in check. August Wilson was famously opposed to the idea of nontraditional casting, and Nesmith begrudgingly toed the line. “I was careful not to go as far as I would have liked in terms of casting the play, given Mr. Wilson’s statements,” he says. “But the next time I tackle one of his plays, that would be part of the discussion [with Wilson’s estate].”
Nontraditional casting will be a central part of New Haarlem’s second piece, a revival of Sweet Charity, the 1966 Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields/Neil Simon/Bob Fosse musical about a taxi dancer and her romantic travails. Director Julio Agustin has adapted the story to feature a Latina title character, renamed Caridad.
“Our culture knows so much about so many Latina performers,” Nesmith says, “both in terms of their public and their private lives, and this just seemed like a resonant way to approach the piece.”
Meanwhile, it’s not too late to begin thinking of the 2013 season. All four fully staged works thus far have been revivals (including James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie and the 1999 musical revue It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues last year), and Nesmith likes the idea of adding new works to the mix. This summer’s Unheard Voices series of staged readings, which includes a new play by Carlyle Brown, would be a logical place to find these shows.
Either way, Nesmith is clear about what New Haarlem’s productions are meant to do for students and audiences: “really speak to the American psyche and in the process extend and revive the interest for live theatre. ”
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).