Shakespeare and Melvin Van Peebles are not generally mentioned in the same breath, though soon they'll be sharing the same stage. This is thanks to the touring wing of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which will open its production of Romeo & Juliet this week in the Studio Theater at the Carnival Center, followed next week by Van Peebles's Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death — a big hit in the Seventies, now largely forgotten. "It's urban poetry — very street," says CTH's cofounder and artistic director, Alfred Preisser. "The characters are the kind of characters that Van Peebles pretty much invented, the kind that took over the blaxploitation drama."
The company's Romeo & Juliet is set in modern-day Harlem and scored to a mix of hip-hop beats, Top 40 radio, and Brahms. Despite this, says Preisser, "it's Shakespeare, straight up." He notes CTH set Macbeth in seventh-century A.D. Scotland and King Lear in 18th-century B.C. Mesopotamia. "We don't usually update, because I'm always afraid that if I update, people are going to take it as me justifying why I'm working with African-American actors. And I don't think I have to do that."
Preisser calls Romeo & Juliet "such a youth play, and the United States is such a youth culture, that I thought to contemporize everything would actually help the play and hit the audience really hard. Romeo and Juliet are teenagers, and the play is about the things teenagers do when their parents aren't looking."
The company, born in 1999, has grown steadily since its inception. Last season's brief tour visited only two cities; this season CTH is slated to be on the road through March.
"We're the only company in the United States that does a season like ours. This season we're doing Melvin Van Peebles, we're doing Langston Hughes, Euripides, and we're doing all of those plays for the same reason: They're great plays about the human condition. When I go back to New York, I'm directing a musical by Langston Hughes, and then I'm right into The Trojan Women by Euripides.
"My original intention was to do all of the great plays that I ever wanted to do, and to let the audience and the Zeitgeist of Harlem inform our choices, and inform the artistic growth of the company. That's pretty much been our modus operandi. And Miami is going to see that; they're going to see Shakespeare and Mario Van Peebles back to back. They're gonna get two full shots of what we do."
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