Fired Up: How NJPAC Is Using Local Issues to Find a New Audience
A new theatrical program at New Jersey Performing Arts Center is doing more than just creating a night out on the town for the people of Newark—it’s hoping to spark social change. The newly launched Stage Exchange series offers free tickets to new plays that focus on key issues affecting New Jersey today, written by local playwrights. Presented in reading format, NJPAC is partnering with New Jersey theater companies to bring these works to a larger metropolitan audience. So far, the new initiative has proven to be a hot ticket—every performance has sold out. “Theater at its best is a pretty democratic form—it should be accessible to everybody,” says Andy Donald, NJPAC’s producer of artistic development and community programming, who is at the helm of Stage Exchange. “I was trying to figure out how, as a presenting house, we could create unique theater attractions and quench the thirst of our theater audience in a unique way.”
At a venue where you’re more likely to see a concert by Aretha Franklin and discussions with Arianna Huffington on the marquee, the inclusion of plays about hate crimes against gay teens and immigration in America (all subjects that have been addressed so far) is a big deal.
“This is a way to engage some artists in the theater community who wouldn't normally present here,” Donald says. “We are able to work with them in this way by helping them develop their play.” These stripped-down readings (no scenic or costume design) are financed by NJPAC.
While Stage Exchange is a showcase for new work, NJPAC has made an exception for its next entry in the series. On February 27, a reading of “The Talented Tenth” by acclaimed Newark playwright Richard Wesley will be presented. Written in 1989, the play follows six Howard University graduates who, in light of their success in mainstream business, are haunted by guilt for turning their back on the underserved communities from which they came.
“I wrote the play during a time when a whole new generation of black entrepreneurs and middle management people were beginning to emerge,” says Wesley, 69. “I wanted to address what role they were going to play moving forward.”
Wesley describes a socioeconomic problem within black communities that he feels has been overshadowed by activism, in which young black professionals merge into large corporations, rather than establishing entrepreneurship and new economic life within struggling areas.
“We tried to join corporations, to move up the ladder, and become the heads of some of these corporations. There has been some success there, but nothing that really has any material gains for the black community as a whole. All of those issues are swirling around in the background and driving ‘The Talented Tenth.’”
“I think the piece is really timely,” says Rodney Gilbert, directing of the production. “The play asks, ‘How do I stay focused on my authentic beliefs that I started out with in college and the reality of where I am as a middle-aged man of color in America?’”
For Gilbert, who is the founder and CEO of Yendor Productions, a partner of the Stage Exchange program, this production of “The Talented Tenth” hits home, literally. “To be producing here in the city of Newark, me being a Newarker; that has me excited. To be in a position to look at a legend, produce his work, and that he's still here. We're honoring his words, shining a spotlight on him right now. That, I think, is great.”
Wesley says he’s looking forward to seeing the play interpreted again. For the playwright, the experience will be an interactive one, as all Stage Exchange productions conclude with an audience talkback. Wesley is the sole panelist on the night of February 27, and he’s ready for it.
“I believe that the country as a whole has been very much hurt by these decisions to cut arts programs out of our curriculum for education,” Wesley says. “The creative mind is a muscle that requires stimulation. Having a program that exposes children to the arts, to new ideas, in a new way of communication is wonderful. Setting up these things for free for kids all over can only help the community in the long run.”
Yet, NJPAC isn’t just luring audiences with free admission—it’s strategically targeting specific groups with plays that speak to their unique issues.
Stage Exchange’s first reading, Chisa Hutchinson’s “She Like Girls,” focused on the 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old gay teenager in Newark. With the help of promotional partners, NJPAC’s 250-seat Chase Room was filled to capacity with members of the LGBT community, educators, clergy members and community leaders for the one-night reading. “They were sitting in this building, in the very city that the play takes place, reliving this event from 10 years ago, reflecting on it and healing together,” says Donald.
Last October’s reading of Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” a play about immigration, saw a large attendance of Latinos and Eastern Europeans. Additional Stage Exchange plays this season will deal with returning soldiers and the treatment of Muslim Americans.
For “The Talented Tenth,” Howard University Alumni Association and New Brunswick Chapter of NAACP, among other organizations, are helping to spread the word.
Unlike presenting theaters, which have a subscriber base and tend to fill the house with the same people, NJPAC has found itself in a situation where its seats are full of ever-changing faces. “The people that come—some go to the theater regularly, some don't,” Donald says. “It feels like if they're coming, they're coming because something about this play tonight is firing them up. And that's exciting.”
“The Talented Tenth,” as part of NJPAC’s Stage Exchange, will take place Friday, February 27 at 7:00 PM. Unfortunately, this free event is already sold out, but you can learn about upcoming Stage Exchange events at NJPAC.org.