Thursday, March 6, 2008

Cutting edge theatre

Much is being made about the historical nature of the current New York revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” When it opens tonight it will be the first time an all-black cast has appeared in an American classic on Broadway. For me it’s yet another proof that if you want innovation, you’ve got to go Off-Broadway or to regional theatres like Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE. It was at CENTERSTAGE in 1972 that I saw the first all-black cast of “Death of a Salesman,” another American classic. Arthur Miller came to the opening.

That was just one of my powerful theatrical experiences over the years at CENTERSTAGE. A junior in high school at the time, it was my first encounter with Miller’s classic. I was a volunteer usher -- my way of getting to see good theatre for free -- and was so moved I went back a couple more times.

That performance, like so many I saw, became my point of reference for all others I would see in the future. As a theatre critic now in New York I often refer to something I saw all those decades ago, first in the old Oriole cafeteria on North Avenue and later, after that building was destroyed by an arson, at the present home on Calvert Street. I recently reviewed a mime artist and described how I first fell in love with the form. Sophie Wibaux and Bert Houle, who as I recall were husband and wife, choreographed “Julius Caesar” in the 1972-73 season and included their mine. It was spellbinding to watch them perform their wordless dialogue of Shakespearean drama. They were part of CENTERSTAGE’s resident company and were incorporated into shows over several years. That was in keeping with CENTERSTAGE’s creative approach to theatre. It certainly had an influence on me.

Through the years I was to experience my first performances of many Shakespeare plays there. And I also encountered new works. It was at CENTERSTAGE I discovered my first Tina Howe play, “Painting Churches.” I was so impressed that many years later when I was working on my second masters thesis, at N.Y.U., I decided my topic would be Howe and her plays. I interviewed her for that, and several times years later for newspaper and magazine features. I then taught a course in her plays one summer at Brooklyn College, all because of that first encounter at CENTERSTAGE.

Seeing all those plays was so important to my development. I ushered all through high school and college and during my years working as a reporter at the “Carroll County Times,” a small daily newspaper about 30 miles outside of Baltimore. I also volunteered at opening night parties, for the annual auction on the air and painting faces at the City Fair. The seeds of my current life were firmly planted at CENTERSTAGE.

When Broadway finally presents its groundbreaking staging of a major work with an all-black cast, I’ll be there to review it. And I’ll remember that CENTERSTAGE took the risk first -- 36 years ago.

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