Two years ago, launching a black-led theater company employing artists of color both onstage and backstage was just an idea tossed out over drinks at a post-production party. But after a year of producing staged readings of playwright Marcus Gardley’s lyrical work, the Front Porch Arts Collective is jumping into three full productions this season.
“Our mission is about presenting narratives from the lens of people of color,” says Front Porch artistic director Dawn M. Simmons. “We’re also very aware that artists of color often leave Boston because there is not enough work. One of our goals is to train the next generation of theater artists ready to address social change through theater and increase representation of people of color onstage, backstage, and in the office.”
Front Porch’s three-play season — consisting of a reimagined classic, a new work, and a play set to music (with additional plans for a devised theater piece next spring) — results from partnerships with a trio of established Boston-area companies: Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, and Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Front Porch’s executive director, says the theaters reached out after attending some of Front Porch’s readings. (The readings were underwritten in part by a Boston Foundation Live Arts grant.)
The swift embrace by other theaters within the community reflects the strong relationships Front Porch’s core artistic team – which also includes executive producer Victoria George and production manager Phyllis Smith — has built over the years. Simmons has directed at all three companies, while Parent, one of the city’s busiest actors, has performed on all three of their stages. And this month Simmons was named executive director of StageSource, the Boston alliance of theater artists and producers.
While the three theater companies encouraged the collaborations, Front Porch selected the titles. “I know the theater community sees us as adding value, rather than competing,” says Simmons.
The season opens with the return of Daniel Beaty’s “Breath and Imagination,” which played at ArtsEmerson in 2015, and this year will be presented at the Lyric Stage Company Nov. 30-Dec. 23, with Parent directing.
“I am making my directing debut with this and am so grateful for Spiro [Veloudos’s] confidence in me,” Parent says of Lyric Stage’s producing artistic director.
Local favorite Davron Monroe will portray Boston native Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist. Beaty’s play uses spirituals and classical music to help tell the touching story of a man determined to achieve his dreams, told through his relationship with his mother.
Underground Railway Theater will co-produce “Black Odyssey,” Gardley’s Homeric journey reimagined through the eyes of Ulysses Lincoln, who struggles to find his way home after the Gulf War. “Black Odyssey” will be directed by Benny Sato Ambush and run April 25-May 19 at Central Square Theater.
Their season concludes with a new adaptation of “The Three Musketeers” at Greater Boston Stage Company June 6-30, which Simmons will direct. This adaptation, by Catherine Bush, captures the novelist Alexandre Dumas’s Haitian heritage in costume and music.
“We couldn’t do it without the partnership of the Lyric, Central Square Theater, and the Greater Boston Stage Company,” says Simmons. “We are also a resident company at Central Square Theater, and they serve as our fiscal sponsor, which makes all the difference in the world.”
Parent, currently serving as the 2018-19 Monan Professor of Theater Arts at Boston College, and Simmons, whose New Exhibition Room company specialized in devised theater, also plan to co-teach “The Identity Project,” an opportunity to bring BC students into the world of devised theater and which could potentially tour other colleges.
The entire artistic team says they are pooling their resources and connections to develop relationships with community and educational groups, including the pop-up Black Market in Dudley Square and Castle of our Skins, a group dedicated to producing a concert and educational series celebrating black artistry through music.
The team is also partnering with students at the Boston Arts Academy and Boston University to mentor them in positions onstage and backstage. Smith, Front Porch’s production manager, says her years in the apprenticeship program at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester had a big impact on her decision to pursue a theater career, and she hopes to provide that opportunity for others. (Her day job is director of venue operations at the Boston Center for the Arts; she also works as a stage manager.)
Parent has deep connections to the Boston public schools, where he taught full time for several years. “It’s important to us that we work with schools to bring the repertory we are presenting onstage into the classroom, and introduce these kids to black classical composers and artists,” he says.
While the current season represents a big step forward for Front Porch, there is more to come. “We want to ease into a self-sustaining business model while paying union contracts,” says Simmons. “As long as we focus on producing exciting theater with high artistic standards, our five-year plan expects us to stand on our own by year four.”
Monkey in the middle
Ken Prestininzi describes his new play “Timbuktu, USA” as a “gothic farce.”
“I love the notion of using unexpected combinations of objects or symbols to create the drama,” says Prestininzi, who is directing the Boston premiere of his play Aug. 25-Sept. 1 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, in a Sleeping Weazel production.
“Timbuktu, USA,” he says, follows a woman whose quest for power turns on her, thanks in no small part to an escaped monkey and a virgin. It’s a mash-up of comedy and horror, set in the world of power politics.
“Sometimes,” Prestininzi says, “our fascination with power gets the better of us. When we think we’re in control, and try to treat life as a game where we control the rules, that’s exactly the moment when things spiral away from us.”
Yes, it is a political comedy with consequences, but don’t worry if you don’t quite get it. The thrill of Prestininzi’s plays — including the mesmerizing “Birth Breath Bride Elizabeth” (ArtsEmerson), and “Ugmo and Eenie Go Down the Ruski Hole” (Sleeping Weazel) — involves his skill with language, combined with his ability to take quirky objects and idiosyncrasies and transform them into surprisingly dramatic material.
“I love the notion of those old ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ movies,” says Prestininzi. “It’s the idea of the innocent child or clown placed in a high-stakes situation. My work emerges from the tradition of Maria Irene Fornés and Samuel Beckett. I love the idea of the clown who responds to a situation by performing tasks with objects. Think of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’ and his efforts to eat and sleep.”
Symbolism allows “the audience to make the connections themselves,” he says. “There’s a real pleasure in those discoveries. It’s something audiences respond to in a refreshingly child-like way.”
“Timbuktu, USA” is Prestininzi’s third collaboration with Sleeping Weazel (he also directed “27 Tips for Banishing the Blues”) and is one of the many artists affiliated with the company.
“Our mission,” says Sleeping Weazel artistic director Charlotte Meehan, “is to present new works that provide a necessary critique of the current [presidential] administration, ongoing racism, and other social ills that plague our country. I want Sleeping Weazel productions to be entertaining as hell and to ignite a fire in our audiences. ‘Timbuktu’ is drop-dead hilarious while also being a strong call to action.”
For tickets, go to www.sleepingweazel.com/upcoming-events.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.