Boston poet and playwright Letta Neely was drawn to the character of Caliban when choosing a scene for the Fort Point Theatre Channel’s production of “Tempest Reconfigured.”
“Caliban is defined as a monster,” says Neely, whose scene will be presented at Fort Point as a work in progress on Aug. 25 at 6 p.m. “But who created that label for him? And how can he move past that?”
Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” traces the final days of the magician Prospero on the island he has ruled since his brother’s betrayal years earlier. The title refers to Prospero’s ability to control the climate, causing the storm that shipwrecks his enemies on the island and allows him to turn the tables on them. In addition to raising his daughter, Miranda, there, Prospero also controls Caliban, an island native whose father was a sea creature and whose mother, Sycorax, was a witch.
The play, says Fort Point Theatre co-artistic director Marc Miller, is rich in themes of transition, which resonated with him as he steps back from a leadership role in the company he founded in 2007.
“There’s also a lot about the relation of the human to the environment,” he says, “and since we’re at ground zero for the waters rising in Boston, we felt it was important to talk about that.”
But he and his co-artistic directors hesitated when considering a full production of the play.
“When we thought about what we could bring to it,” says co-artistic director Christine Noah, “we decided the community organizations who have been contributing to the work Fort Point produces would bring new interpretations to issues we are all facing today in Boston.”
With the support of a Boston Foundation Live Arts grant, the result is “Tempest Reconfigured,” a collection of six short scenes inspired by Shakespeare’s play, created by performing partners from across the city, including Artists’ Theatre of Boston, House of Escada (a ballroom house of LGBTQIA people), Luminarium Dance Company, OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center (which offers dance, theater arts, and African history education), Petrichor Performance Collective (a group of singers who focus on R&B/soul stylings with heavy gospel and jazz influences), and The Loop Lab, which will document the performances.
Noah says each of the partners was given the freedom to choose scenes from the play that spoke to them and worked independently to develop their performances. The groups will present their scenes separately within their neighborhoods, and then the full “Tempest Reconfigured” will culminate in a series of performances this fall, including at the Black Box Theatre at Codman Square Health Center (Nov. 7) and the Boston Public Library (Nov. 14).
“We have a costume consultant who is creating some consistency across the pieces, and we’re also providing yards of fabric that can be used as backdrops or as part of their scene,” says Miller. “We are providing some resources, and each group can choose to incorporate them into their scene or not.”
At Fort Point, actor Manuel Aquiles Lopez Torres says rehearsals have been unlike anything he’s done before.
“If felt less like memorizing a script and more like talking about my own experiences,” he says. “We became a kind of ‘hive mind,’ where we were all thinking about the same images, ideas, and characters. It was magical to see it unfold.”
Neely says writing in this devised theater style was new to her but also a thrill.
“It felt a little like leaping off a ledge,” she says with a laugh, “but by relying on each other’s expertise and vulnerability, we created a scene that resonates for all of us.”
Neely chose to focus on an imagined conversation between Sycorax and Caliban because these are characters who are rarely seen in the play but who have great back stories, she says. In the scene, Sycorax, like every mom, tries to encourage her son to focus on what’s important.
“The idea behind it,” says Neely, who plays Sycorax, “is to gain control of your narrative. And then share that story with others.”
Thompson reprises ‘Jitney’ role
Tony Award nominee John Douglas Thompson returns to the Huntington Theatre for a staged reading of August Wilson’s “Jitney” Sept. 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion in a benefit for Front Porch Arts Collective (pay what you wish starting at $25, www.bostontheatrescene.com). Thompson, who was seen last season on the Huntington stage in “Man in the Ring,” for which he won an Elliot Norton Award, will be joined by Johnny Lee Davenport, Brandon Green, and Elle Borders (who all appeared in Front Porch’s “Black Odyssey”), along with Christopher Edwards (Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s artistic director) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, one of the founders of Front Porch. Thompson earned a Tony nomination in 2017 for his performance as Becker in “Jitney.” The reading will be directed by Monica White Ndounou.
‘Hype Man’ returns for three shows
Company One’s award-winning production of “Hype Man: A Break Beat Play” returns for three performances in a special fund-raiser for the company Nov. 14-16 at Oberon (Tickets: $35-$150, www.americanrepertorytheater.org). Idris Goodwin’s drama with music follows a friendship among three members of a rap group who find that race and gender divide them and bring them together in unexpected ways.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.