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In recent years, black theater in Washington has been characterized more by stop-throughs of touring productions than by sustained runs of actual home-grown companies. So it is with both hope and curiosity that D.C. theater-scenesters are watching American Theater Project, which is performing The Contract at 8Rock, and Staged Black, currently mounting its maiden production, Jazz, Jive & Jam.
But one of them, Staged Black, isn’t exactly coming to Washington. “We didn’t want to go into D.C.,” explains company founder Kwame Alexander. “D.C. is saturated. Not just with black theater, but theater period.”
Instead, Staged Black is mounting JJ&J at Arlington’s fledgling-friendly Gunston Arts Center.
Subtitled A Staged Blackumentary, the evening is a compilation of the poetry, short stories, and drama of Langston Hughes. “A lot of people remember Hughes’ poetry because he did a lot of “jazzoetry’—poetry that fuses jazz music and blues with the spoken word,” says Alexander. “He was a jazz fanatic, dating from his days in the ’20s Harlem renaissance. But people don’t know that he also wrote drama, what I call “half acts,’ because they’re only 10-15 minutes long. And very intense. And then there are his “Simple’ short stories, with a character he created called “Simple.’ ”
Alexander is serving as writer, director, and producer for JJ&J, which he has modeled after Spunk, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of several Zora Neale Hurston stories, which had a long run at the Studio Theater last season. Alexander says that jazz music threads the show together, as do passages of live African rhythms. And he promises some laughs, calling Hughes’ work, “the comedy of protest, a kind of drama-dy.”
Alexander formed Staged Black “in his mind” in 1987, when he was enrolled at Virginia Tech. After graduation, he worked as a temp, devising ways to proceed with his company until he met Gunston’s Great Encourager, Jon Palmer Claridge: “Jon told me that Arlington was looking for a black company. We talked over a couple of weeks and worked it out. The great thing is, the theater is rent-free.”
Alexander plans to take JJ&J to London this summer, but he won’t forget the place that gave Staged Black its start. He says that most certainly, he will be back at Gunston next season for “two or three plays.”