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How Ty Jones is running the Classical Theatre of Harlem while acting in The Great Society
The timing was perfect. After a four-year stint on Starz's crime drama Power, Ty Jones' special agent character was about to be killed off when he got offered a role in Broadway's The Great Society, no audition required. Make that multiple roles. Jones portrays Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Representative Adam Clayton Powell and assorted small parts in Robert Schenkkan's chronicle of Lyndon B. Johnson's one full term as president, a period when the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War changed the trajectory of our country. A follow-up to the Tony-winning All the Way, the historical saga stars Brian Cox as the wheeler-dealer-in-chief, supported by an ensemble of 18 playing more than 50 characters. Jones is grateful to be one of them.
"What Robert has written isn't a hagiography of LBJ -- it's a pretty fair portrayal," he says. "If you're interested in how the machine of politics works, this is a great play to see. It's an epic story, and it's an opportunity to take a look at the world in which we live today." Indeed, LBJ's Great Society goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice seems even further out of reach a half century on. "You're going to walk away talking about the issues," Jones says. "There are so many things that we unpack about this entire system in this play."
While The Great Society marks Jones' return to Broadway after nine years, he's been busy uptown that entire time as the producing artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Jones, who resides in Harlem with his wife and three children, began his affiliation with CTH as an actor. In the '00s, he starred in numerous productions (notably Macbeth and Emancipation, a drama about Nat Turner which he also wrote), and took home an Obie Award for his performance in CTH's in-your-face revival of The Blacks: A Clown Show.
But when the founders departed in 2009, Jones realized he needed to step up if he wanted the company to survive. Over the past decade, Jones and his CTH colleagues have launched free summer shows in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park, a free theatre education program for neighborhood youths and a free play reading series, all while mounting classics, new works and musicals, and eradicating the troupe's sizable debt.
Steady TV and film work has allowed Jones to pursue his passion project -- this is the first year he's paid himself a salary at CTH. And in fall 2020, the company expects to take another major step by establishing a home at the renovated Victoria Theater on 125th Street. "The Apollo will be running that space, so essentially we will be a theatre in residence," Jones explains. "All these years we've been itinerant. That can work for a little while, but we're now at a place where we need that sense of permanence."
With that game changer on the horizon, Jones has been using his time in The Great Society, which is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater, to soak up everything he can about how that renowned cultural institution functions. "Walking around these hallways, you see what a huge endeavor it is to run, and I want to be a lifelong learner in all aspects of theatre, both artistic and administrative," says Jones. "I talk to André Bishop [the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater] whenever I get an opportunity. [The Great Society director] Bill Rauch is also the artistic director of The Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts, which opens next year. I try to take my cues from well-established flagships like these to sharpen my tools for Classical Theatre of Harlem."
Just four days after The Great Society closes on November 30, CTH kicks off its second annual run of A Christmas Carol in Harlem, a contemporary, gospel-infused take on the Charles Dickens staple that examines the ramifications of gentrification. "We like to take classics and dust them off," Jones says. "I want this to be an evergreen holiday show for uptown." He's also prepping CTH's spring production, the world premiere of Harlem Dream, a collaboration with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that combines Felix Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer's Night's Dream and Duke Ellington tunes with a reimagining of Shakespeare's romantic comedy.
While Jones is used to multitasking as a performer and producer, he credits his CTH colleagues -- notably associate artistic director Carl Cofield, who's helming A Christmas Carol in Harlem -- for making sure no balls get dropped. "There are people who are like, 'Classical Theatre of Harlem -- that's Ty Jones' company,'" he says. "But when there's one leader, then it becomes about a cult of personality, and that's not the best way to survive. I'm working on multiple things so that when I do leave, it will be sustainable. I want CTH to be around for several generations, and I want it to be a template for other small companies for how to build a sound arts-presenting institution."
Top image: Ty Jones.