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The Classical Theatre of Harlem sets a lofty seasonal goal
All Ty Jones wants for Christmas is for audiences to come to Harlem. That's why the producing artistic director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem commissioned the brand-new holiday musical The First Noel, which is enjoying what he intends to be its first annual run at the iconic Apollo Theatre. Also an actor and playwright, Jones began his affiliation with CTH as a performer, starring in numerous productions (notably Macbeth and the Nat Turner bio show Emancipation, which he also wrote), and taking home an Obie Award for his work in the in-your-face revival of The Blacks: A Clown Show. But when the company's founders departed in 2009, Jones realized he would have to step up if he wanted CTH to survive. Six years later, after launching free summer Shakespeare in Marcus Garvey Park and reducing the troupe's massive debt, Jones sounds elated about its trajectory. He's also hopeful that, in the not too distant future, CTH will be to Harlem what the Public Theater is to downtown.
Of course, the success of The First Noel, which took three years to develop, is a big part of his vision. "When I used to do regional theatre, virtually every company did A Christmas Carol, and the revenue from that production helped with their funding for the next year," he explains. "I realized that Harlem had no evergreen holiday show. So I thought, let's create a piece we can do in perpetuity, a piece of great art that also earns income."
To craft the musical, Jones reached out to multi-hyphenate Lelund Durond Thompson, an actor, writer, and composer who also had a history with CTH. Thompson brought on Jason Michael Webb and together, they penned The First Noel's book, lyrics, and songs, also weaving in innovative arrangements of Christmas carols like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Deck the Halls," and the title tune.
Storywise, The First Noel certainly takes a page from Charles Dickens' holiday classic. At its center is Deloris (a heartrending Soara-Joy Ross) who, like Scrooge, loathes all things Christmas, although she has good reason: her first child died around the holiday. "Deloris is that Scrooge character in the beginning, not wanting the very thing that would actually heal her," says Webb. "She rejects her mother, Christmas, the community, her husband. She has to hit absolute rock bottom to realize she's the one in her own way." That said, her arduous but ultimately uplifting journey through grief has a real-life basis, too. "I watched my mom deal with the passing away of my siblings," says Thompson, who lost two brothers and one sister. "Seeing her go from not handling it so well to leaning on faith to pulling through inspired a lot of the book."
The score is a mix of rousing gospel, catchy pop, and traditional musical theatre, with the anthem "Life Happens" serving as the show's theme song, in both senses of the word. It's sung multiple times --- by Deloris, her husband, their grown daughter, and the entire ensemble for the finale. But it's also the moral of the story. "We all plan out our lives and then unexpected things happen," says Webb. "We have to negotiate life to make it work, but we figure things out and we make it to the other side."
A memory musical, The First Noel is bookended by contemporary scenes but mostly set in Harlem 1985, an era when the area was seen by many as scary and crime-ridden. But the production shows another side to the old neighborhood, celebrating a time when the tight-knit community came together to help one another, long before luxury condos and Starbucks arrived. "I want to give credit to the folks who decided to stay in the neighborhood and dealt with some of the economic issues that were plaguing Harlem at the time," says Jones, who's lived in the area since 1999. "Some of them are feeling the pinch now. They lasted through all of that stuff, and without them, we wouldn't have the Harlem we have today."
Of course, gentrification brings development, and that may end up helping CTH. The company, currently itinerant, is hoping to score a permanent home on 125th Street when the shuttered Victoria Theater is transformed into a hotel, rental residence, and culture complex --- assuming the long-stalled project ever gets off the ground. "The Apollo is supposed to manage and operate that space," says Jones. "So we're in talks with them to be the theatre in residence. We would have a 199-seat house and an office space. That is very much part of this whole plan." In the meantime, the company will mount shows where it can and, ideally, revive The First Noel in 2016 on the Apollo's main stage as opposed to the small third-floor black box where it's currently playing.
Another goal for Jones? To start drawing a salary. "I don't get one dime," he admits. "We're still rebuilding. I want a sustainable company, and you have to be measured and smart when you're producing theatre. I want to get to a place where my position is a paid one. You need a succession plan --- no one will take it over for me for free."
Photos by Shahar Azran. Top photo: Soara-Joye Ross and Nathaniel Stampley