Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ty Jones of Classical Theatre of Harlem

New York, New York

Image courtesy of Classical Theatre of Harlem

When you hear "the arts" and "Harlem" you may think immediately of jazz and literature---Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald or Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. But among the wealth of arts opportunities in Harlem these days you'll also find classical theater.

Founded in 1999, the Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) has presented more than 40 productions whose playwrights range from Euripides to August Wilson. The company, led by Producing Director Ty Jones, uses non-traditional casting, original adaptations, music and dance to present the classical canon in fresh, innovative, and highly compelling ways.

This fall, CTH received one of only two $90,000 grants from the NEA?s New Play Development Program for its production of Radha Blank's SEED.

Here's our chat with Ty Jones.

NEA: Why classical theater in Harlem? What do the classics in particular have to offer your audiences?

TY JONES: Good question. When the term "classic/al" is used in our lives, it's fair to say that it's a distinction that acknowledges the accomplishments of an artist whose works are to be held in the highest of esteem. I would assert that it's time for the term "classical" to essentially have a transformation to encompass more than the generally accepted meaning as we embark on the 21st century.

We want to dust off the traditional term of "classic" to create productions that reflect our world, our time, and that compel the audience to participate. We will continue with our eclectic seasons that have included Shakespeare, Euripides, Chekov, Sophocles, and Moliere, and do them in such a way that they are held in the highest of esteem. However, we contend that Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, August Wilson, and Lorraine Hansberry are voices that are just as worthy of the term "classic." Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks, Radha Blank, and Marcus Gardley are newer writers whose work has yet to "stand the test of time," however, we embrace their work as future classics---because indeed the themes in their stories are both universal and classic.

NEA: How does Radha Blank?s play SEED fit into the vision of CTH?

JONES: We are the 21st-century theater company. CTH is dedicated to returning the classics to the stages of Harlem. In New York City, nationally, and internationally, we seek to nurture a new, young, and culturally diverse audience. We also seek to produce theater that truly reflects the diversity of ideas and the racial tapestry of America. We seek to create comprehensive access for theater artists of diverse backgrounds. This includes not only actors, but directors, designers, and playwrights.

NEA: How do you plan to reach out to younger audiences with this play? How do you envision engaging the hip-hop generation?

JONES: This is the brick and mortar work. For the workshop of SEED, we canvassed Ulysses S. Grant and Manhattanville housing. These areas, known to most as the projects, have been site to some of the most profound work CTH has done. We went to more than 3,000 apartments to recruit for our Project Classic initiative, a component of some of the work we do to provide theater arts education to students who are left out of the conversation of theater. Once we recruited the students, we then made the play SEED available to ALL residents of both housing developments. That's more than 20,000 people that had the opportunity to come see this great play. With the generous NEA grant that we've received, we will continue to develop this audience as future theater patrons.

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in community?

JONES: We are here to comment on the ruling class. We can do that through comedy, tragedy---any dramatic form or fashion or genre. I believe there is a distinction between the artist and a personality. Artists participate in projects to promote the project. Personalities participate in projects to promote themselves. Both are valid and, admittedly, there are times I think the lines may blur, however, the artist will use their gifts at the expense of personality.

We are here to move people in profound and pleasurable ways.

NEA: What is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

JONES: To participate.To listen. To support. To speak. To be contributing citizens in their community and abroad.


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