Classical Theatre of Harlem star Ty Jones frees his inner writer in Emancipation.
Wed Apr 9 2008
Photograph: Jill Jones
A lot has changed for Ty Jones since the Classical Theatre of Harlem was forced to delay the 2006 debut of his first play, Emancipation, due to scheduling conflicts. Over the past two years, the 38-year-old actor’s movie career started to take off (he recently costarred in Brian De Palma’s Redacted and has three more flicks in the can), he became a father and he joined CTH’s board of directors. A lot has changed for CTH, too: The Obie- and Drama Desk Award–winning company left its longtime home at the Harlem School of the Arts and became a roaming troupe—although not for long. Last November, the Harlem Community Development Corporation accepted Danforth Development Partners’ bid to transform Harlem’s landmarked Victoria Theater into a cultural destination/condo hybrid. Once the project is completed in 2012, CTH will have its own state-of-the-art theater in the heart of its namesake ’hood on 125th Street.
In the meantime, CTH continues to produce poignant, politically minded theater all over the city, and Jones’s Emancipation—a searing drama about Nat Turner and his bloody 1831 slave rebellion—is finally being let loose in an unusually powerful venue: the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. “Malcolm invoked Nat’s name a lot in his speeches, so it’s a great fit,” says Jones, who also stars as the infamous historical figure. “Chris [McElroen, CTH’s cofounder and the show’s director] and I had been looking at warehouse-type places when the folks at Audubon approached us about doing the play there. We walked in and saw this 80' x 80' room with 25-foot ceilings, and Chris was like, ‘Yeah, this is the spot.’ ”
Loosely based on Turner’s lawyer Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, the play is not some dry biodrama. Moving back and forth in time, Emancipation contrasts Turner’s early life with his gruesome jailhouse admissions, incorporating numerous passages from Shakespeare and the Bible. As in other CTH shows, violence is depicted unflinchingly, and the actors adopt a confrontational attitude toward the spectators. The action begins with an African-American boy provocatively asking an audience member, “Are you afraid of me, sir? If I was a grown man, would you be afraid of me? What if you had something to do with killin’ my mama and daddy?”
That moment is reminiscent of CTH’s 2003 mounting of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, the production that put the company—and Jones—in theater’s top ranks. It featured many profound but uncomfortable moments in which black actors interacted with white audience members. It went on to win four Obies, including one for Jones, whose charismatic performance vacillated between charming and terrifying.
While Jones admits that The Blacks informed his own play, he adds they’re very different. “I don’t believe that it will be a brutal assault like The Blacks,” he says. “Structurally, it’s much more conventional, although I hope to provoke a similar effect. I want to inspire people to engage in a dialogue about race and the impact the legacy of slavery has had on our society’s psyche.”
Race is an emotional subject for everyone, but Jones is particularly passionate when discussing the topic. Ever since CTH launched in 1999—and particularly since the troupe won the Victoria project—certain members of the African-American community have criticized the company because its two founders, McElroen and Alfred Preisser, are Caucasian. Jones thinks this is ludicrous. “There are these folks who judge us because the two guys who started this place are white,” he says. “We never even said we were an all-black theater! A lot of these people know nothing about us. They’ve never even seen our productions. They’re just so sure that we’re hurting the black community somehow. If they’re so worried about us, I hope they’re out there protesting every rapper and some of the garbage that’s on BET.”
Although Jones will keep chasing opportunities outside of CTH, he plans to stay involved for the long haul. “We’re still in our infancy,” he says. “I know we have a lot of work to do, and I see myself as a real team player. In time, I believe CTH can be to uptown what Lincoln Center is to midtown or the Public is to downtown. I want to be here for that.”
Emancipation is at the Shabazz Center at the Audubon Ballroom.