Contemporizing the classics

| 27 Sep 2016 | 11:12

The Classical Theatre of Harlem has a truly localized mission, and that is to reflect the history and culture of the neighborhood in which it was founded. “Harlem is a changing place, but we certainly honor the cultural legacy from which we sprung,” said David Roberts, who serves as the organization’s managing director.

Since 1999, CTH has been performing both classical and contemporary works with its community always at heart. Its newest production, “Fit for a Queen,” highlights the life of Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh in 15th century Egypt. “It just seemed very timely with Hillary Clinton becoming the first nominee of a major political party as female, that we should shed light on this Ancient Egyptian historical figure,” Roberts noted.

A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Roberts has been with the company since 2013 and is happy to report the nonprofit’s growth in productions and educational efforts. As for their annual offerings, he explained, “I don’t believe that CTH has had a third production in over 10 years, so adding a third production, “Fit for a Queen,” is quite a big jump for us.”

The show celebrates its world premiere on Oct. 7 at 3LD Art & Technology Center on Greenwich Street.

As managing director, what does your job entail?Managing directors in the nonprofit theater world are usually part of a co-leadership team. So you’ll have your artistic director, who’s really the head of productions or programming. And then the managing director is the partner who is in charge of the actual institution. So the back-office work, the marketing, the development and fundraising, the operations. And usually, but not always, both work with and report to a board of directors.

In this position, what are some initiatives you’ve put into place that you’re proud of?I have to say that the four years prior to my coming on board, the institution was entirely volunteer-run, primarily led by our producing artistic director, Ty Jones, who’s also our board chair. Now, he continues to be a volunteer, however, we will be changing that in the coming calendar year. It will be a salaried position, which I’m very proud of. So we really worked on the infrastructure and the support, so that we could build all of those support systems around the art. We also brought on a director of development to help us with grant writing and fundraising. And with professionalized office systems and the HR systems, we’ve increased revenues. Through all of that success and along with Ty, we’ve expanded the programming both on our education front as well our production.

What are some CTH productions that you’ve been fond of?The summers are so fantastic because they’re family friendly; they’re outside; it feels very New York-y. It’s “Shakespeare in the Park,” but it’s uptown. And there’s a sense of community and inclusiveness in our productions. I think that our director, Carl Cofield, who did “The Tempest” last year as well as “Macbeth” this past summer, has been fantastic. He has vision. He gets what we are trying to do and the community, and makes it very accessible.

Ron Cephas Jones starred in your production of “The Tempest.” I interviewed him for this column when he was in “Of Mice and Men” on Broadway. Oh, yes. He was just a brilliant Prospero. Very well received. We were very lucky to have him. You know, he really jumped at the chance to work with Ty and really raise the profile of what it is Ty, the staff and the board are trying to do up here.

What makes this current production, “Fit for a Queen,” meaningful?The traditional classics that we’re all familiar with and have come out of the Western cannon, CTH does well. We’ve done Shakespeare every summer. There’s no limit of those recognizable Western European classics that we’ve done. We also assert that there are classics of the African diaspora that deserve to be put in that same canon and revered and shared. In addition to that, we assert that there are future classics. That there are artists living, working and developing today that are going to be the classics of tomorrow. And we certainly think that Betty Shamieh [the show’s playwright] fits into that mold. She’s been working for scores of years on her craft and has a very unique voice, one that is reflective of a very diverse America. And we know that this play sheds light on a historical figure that many of us had never heard of. The female ruler, Hatshepsut, who led not as queen, but as pharaoh. There are obviously issues around sexism, gender, gender identity and sexuality that are brought up that are all very modern. There are issues of the patriarchy that I think are, in our modern world, getting a new hearing. And so to put those things in a historical context helps us to navigate where we are in the world, how far we’ve come and how far yet we have to go. And it’s interesting that Betty chose to do this as a comedy as opposed to a drama. And I think sometimes you can hear things differently when it’s a comedy as opposed to a drama. We’re just very excited that she chose to work with us to have this be the world premiere of this piece.

What makes The Classical Theatre of Harlem special?I think that theater is always local if you compare it to other art forms. A museum, sure, it’s a destination, but we can get prints of artwork or things get borrowed from one museum to another halfway around the world. On television and with film, it could be distributed, especially now with the internet, at the press of a button. Millions of people can experience it. But with theater, half of the experience is being there in the room with a community of other audience members. A play is not a play because it’s written on a page or even because actors act it. It’s a play because actors are acting it live in front of a community, an audience, and they are part of that experience. And so, with that sense that theater is always local, that you have to be there and you have to be there in the moment, I think that The Classical Theatre of Harlem embraces the temporal nature of that and has a very keen awareness that it is in, of and by Harlem.

To learn more about CTH, visit