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With the Twelfth Night sequel Malvolio, Classical Theatre of Harlem is expanding the canon and how the company serves audiences
When asked how The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) manages to attract Tony nominees such as Ron Cephas Jones (This Is Us, Clyde's) and Kara Young (Clyde's, Cost of Living) to star in its free summer shows, producing artistic director Ty Jones doesn't mince words: "I think we do the kind of work that Tony nominees want to do." A busy stage and screen actor in his own right, Jones understands the power of celebrity—that's why he worked hard to recruit Ethan Hawke and Andre Braugher for CTH's board. But if audiences come for a boldface name, Jones gets them to return by presenting accessible, engaging, diverse and family-friendly reimaginings of plays by Shakespeare and the Greeks.
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 searing revival of The Blacks: A Clown Show.
When the founders departed in 2009, Jones realized he needed to step up if he wanted the company to survive. Over the past 14 years, Jones and his CTH colleagues have launched a free theatre education program, a free play reading series and, since 2013, free summer shows in Harlem's Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, including critically acclaimed mountings of Macbeth (starring Jones and Broadway vet Roslyn Ruff), The Tempest (featuring Ron Cephas Jones, no relation) and last year's Twelfth Night with Kara Young, which was so beloved, it transferred Off Broadway for a brief encore run.
In a savvy experiment, this summer Jones decided to present a brand-new comedy sequel to the latter. Titled Malvolio and written by CTH playwright in residence Betty Shamieh, it's named for the pompous, put-upon steward who is much abused in Twelfth Night. It's a departure for CTH since it's an extension, not a reinvention, of a classic. Co-directed by Jones and Ian Belknap and starring Allen Gilmore and A Strange Loop Tony nominee John-Andrew Morrison, this rollicking romp takes place 20 years after Twelfth Night and gives all the main characters, including the revengeful Malvolio, a chance to evolve, reconnect and forgive. Running through July 29, it's a critically acclaimed, no-cost crowd-pleaser, no tickets required.
It's also more than just a show; it's a neighborhood hub. Before every performance, audiences can peruse a small market showcasing food, clothing and art from locals, and meet representatives from social service organizations. On Friday evenings, Jazzmobile plays a set before the main event. It's all part of Jones' vision to turn CTH's summer productions into a destination event that also serves the community.
"People can check out the vendors, have some food, there's a great little playground for the kids. And then in the evening, they come to our show," says Jones, adding that they're also setting up resources for folks struggling with addiction or homelessness. "Our ultimate goal is to find a way to integrate all these different aspects," he says. "We're actually calling it Harlem Renaissance reborn. A hundred years ago, Harlem was under siege and the people had to look to each other to figure out how to take care of one another. And lots of times they were brought together because of the arts, that's when critical conversations started to happen. I feel that Harlem is in a similar place again, and I think we can use the arts to help bring it back. We're going to have to look to each other for community maintenance. I'm not going to pretend that it's easy building these relationships with politicians, local businesses and organizations, and funders. But it's something that I think I can work on to the day that I die. I believe in this thing called art; I believe in its power."
While Marcus Garvey Park is CTH's unofficial summer home—Jones is quick to point out that the company is not guaranteed annual use of the amphitheatre and must reapply every year—he dreams of a year-round indoor space. The troupe's board recently announced plans for a Harlem Classical Arts Complex in Central Harlem, which would house three neighborhood-based performing arts companies: CTH, The Harlem Chamber Players and Harlem Opera Theater. But considering so many nonprofit theatres with brick-and-mortar homes are currently reducing their programming, laying off staff or closing all together, he doesn't want to rush.
"Let's just be really smart about this because once you get a building, all of a sudden, you're fundraising for the space rather than the art," he says. "We have to be very strategic about how we grow and how we access our development resources to keep our company alive. Because of the way theatre is in terms of the economics, we don't really have room to fail. We have to be very judicious about the choices that we make. I'm highly aware of the challenges that other organizations, particularly Black organizations, have trying to find a way toward sustainability. So, we're moving at a very measured pace. I'll admit, sometimes it keeps me awake at night, but I think we're on a good trajectory."
For the rest of July, he's squarely focused on winning new fans with Malvolio, which, though conversationally poetic, is easier to follow for novices than Shakespeare. "Whenever anybody has the audacity to do anything with Shakespeare, some of the purists out there won't like it," Jones acknowledges. "And that's okay. At the end of the day, I think that we have a wonderful sequel to Twelfth Night that will go on to have its own life." While he understands why CTH's summer shows are often mentioned in the same breath as The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park, he insists they're not in competition and believes there's room for both. "People should go see everything they possibly can," he says. "Hopefully, they'll come uptown to see what we're doing."
Top image: Allen Gilmore and John-Andrew Morrison, center, in Malvolio. All photos by Richard Termine.