While the neo-Harlem Renaissance is constantly touted in New York newspapers, most of the articles concentrate on real estate, restaurants and retail. Yet one of the best — oh hell, I’ll say it — the best theater company working in the city is located in the ‘hood: The Classical Theatre of Harlem (645 St. Nicholas Ave). Founded in 1999 by Christopher McElroen and Alfred Preisser, CTH grew out of a Shakespeare workshop they taught at the Harlem School of the Arts, where the company is currently in residence. Using local and sometimes novice actors and artists from the area, McElroen and Preisser have tackled an incredible repertoire of classics, from a deliciously bloody Macbeth to a confrontational mounting of Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show (both starring my man, Obie-winner Ty Jones, whom I’ve raved about in L pages past). But the duo doesn’t just stick to shows by dead white guys (even though McElroen and Preisser happen to be Caucasian). They’ve revived work by the late August Wilson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), the still very much alive Melvin Van Peebles (Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death) and have even showcased original pieces, like last year’s orgiastic Caligula, co-written and directed by Preisser.
Part of what makes CTH’s productions so vital is that the folks there understand that “classic theater” doesn’t have to be mind-numbing. “To me, a classic is a show that will remain relevant in the future,” explains Preisser. “When Euripides wrote Trojan Women, it was new and infused with energy. Now the play is done with great respect and reverence,” he says, affecting a grave tone. “That’s wrong. We want audiences to experience theater, not just watch it.”
Despite their remote location, CTH has attracted some impressive performers. Two-time Tony nominee André De Shields has starred in two CTH productions (Caligula and Dream on Monkey Mountain) and is in talks to play the lead in a very unconventional (and incestuous) King Lear next season; and Cosby Show regular Earle Hyman appeared in The Cherry Orchard last year. CTH also boasts a number of famous fans, including The Matrix Revolutions’ Mary Alice, The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad and the aforementioned Peebles. In fact, over the past seven years CTH has built such a stellar reputation that it’s in the running for a major change of address. “We’re part of a project that Steven Williams, the president of Danforth Development Partners and a third-generation Harlemite, has pitched to redevelop the historic Victoria Theater on 125th,” says McElroen. “If he wins the bid we’ll have two spaces, a 199-seat theater and a 99-seat one. The Apollo fits 1,500 and Aaron Davis Hall has 700 seats, so there are no legit venues in Harlem of those sizes. And in addition to mounting our own shows we would make our spaces available to other community organizations.”
McElroen and Preisser hope to know whether they will have a new home by the end of March. In the meantime, they’re concentrating on the rest of their season, which includes a revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists (March 15-April 16) about three scientists confined to a mental institution, and the Nat Turner slave rebellion-inspired epic Emancipation (June 21-July23), written by and starring company regular Jones. “It’s an exciting, visceral piece of theater,” says McElroen, who will be directing. Considering CTH’s track record, that’s mighty praise for Jones’ playwriting debut.