The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) is a New York-based theater company that performs classic works with its own uniquely modern take. This summer, they are presenting a free outdoors production of "The Three Musketeers" which is being performed in Marcus Garvey Park in uptown Manhattan through July 30. This version of the action-packed classic story has a Caribbean twist.

Recently "The Three Musketeers" director, Jenny Bennett, and CTH’s producing artistic director, Ty Jones, spoke about their experiences working on this production and others via an exclusive interview.

Performances and free theater

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in theater and when did you become associated with The Classical Theatre of Harlem?

Jenny Bennett (JB): Theatre is actually a family condition for me: I’m a fourth-generation theater woman. I grew up on a cot in the back of her auditorium, and my young summer memories are all at Will-o-Way—my brother, Jamie who is an actor now, and I would play the children in shows that had them, or help my grandpa in the box office, selling apple cider at intermission. Between those moments, I’d climb in the light loft over the stage and hover, watching.

I’ve known Ty Jones since 1996. We both went to the same MFA program: the PTTP at the University of Delaware.

Ty was in the class just before me, but he was one of those rock-star alumni who would come and visit the program from time to time with his characteristic enthusiasm, encouragement, and joy-- he gave all of us hope that we would survive the training.

When I returned to NYC in 2007 after seven years’ working abroad in Taiwan, we were both at a UD alumni event, and he told me about The Classical Theatre of Harlem, where he was then acting and serving as a member of the Board.

My wife and I, Harlem residents, were thrilled by the CTH work we saw that winter – fierce, bold, powerhouse Theatre! Ty then invited me to audition for his play about the Nat Turner rebellion, “Emancipation,” so I got to play in that fierce, bold, powerhouse myself.

In the past nine years, I’ve gotten to use all kinds of theater-making muscles with CTH: acting, directing, a little stage managing, a little box office managing, a little general managing.

Ty Jones has led this company as Producing Artistic Director back from the brink of collapse after the financial crisis of 2008. And better yet, he has grown it -- with careful husbandry, a commitment to rooting the work in otherwise underrepresented artists, and his own sheer enthusiastic enrolling of contributors, artists, audience, and staff to build a great team. He’s a bit of a miracle.

MM: What inspired you to create a performance of "The Three Musketeers"?

JB: About five years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Tom Reiss on his book: “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.” I learned for the first time that Alexandre Dumas was of Afro-Caribbean descent, that his grandmother Marie-Cessette Dumas was captured in Africa, abducted to what’s now Haiti, and enslaved by his French grandfather.

Alexandre’s grandfather was a Marquis who sold his children and their mother to raise money for the Marquis’ own return to France. Some months later, he re-purchased only fourteen-year old Thomas (who would be Alexandre’s father) and brought him to France.

Ten years later, a fully educated and sword-trained, young noble Thomas joined the French army. He rapidly rose through the ranks with skill and heroism through the French Revolutionary Wars, and as a général commissaire commanding 50k troops, attained the highest rank of any black man in a white society, ever – a record he held for almost two-hundred years. How had I not learned the amazing origin story of this literary giant?! Oh, wait, I know institutional racism.

Ty Jones (TJ): Last year we chose to do Macbeth because I believe that it’s Shakespeare’s most politically significant play, and we were living in politically significant times. The turmoil following the 2017 election has now escalated, and though conditions were met many years ago, that has led us to our current circumstance, our entire political system under indictment.

A new majority must be forged where seeking ethical truths and recognizing our shared humanity outweighs our appetite for hyper-individualism and status. The main characters in “The Three Musketeers” though from contrasting backgrounds and must ally to combat the reprobate behavior of those in the ruling class. “All for one, and one for all,” is a call to action that resonates now, more than ever.

MM: Why and how did you decide to add a Caribbean flair to your rendition of the play?

JB: It was important to Ty and me that we deliberately celebrate Alexandre Dumas’ origins in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. I wanted to meet Marie-Cessete Dumas’ grandson, the literary giant. Alexandre was, according to fellow playwrights of his time, a hoot, apparently: chatty, hilarious, and generous.

The Afro-Caribbean flair is in the roots of the man who, inspired by his swashbuckling war hero father, invented these great Musketeer stories. A great question might be: why haven’t we been explicit about that Afro-Caribbean influence for the two centuries that these stories have towered among Western Literature?

MM: What is your favorite scene and/or thing about this particular play?

JB: Catherine Bush’s play is a terrific adaptation of Dumas’ novel: it has an almost cinematic flow but is very much of the theater. It trusts actors with lots of doubling, empowers the audience to imagine-along, and is a designer’s dream. I’m a big fan of doing stuff onstage that can only be done in live theater, and Catherine’s play thrums with the collaborative possibilities unique to this medium. I’m so psyched that CTH gets to do the NYC Premiere with this dream team of designers, actors, performers, and producers!

Plays, props, and plans

MM: You put on most of your work for free, so what are the challenges of keeping the company afloat?

TJ: Raising money is the perfunctory answer. Yet the reality is that to be a sustainable company one must find a terrific, damn near divine way of managing the following: board governance; fiscal guidance; artistic impact; audience development; growth; administrative culture; community buy-in; political shifts; leadership...to name a few.

MM: You perform in parks, so how do you incorporate the scenery and surroundings as props?

JB: Justin and Christopher Swader are the scenic designers for “The Three Musketeers” as they’ve been for several CTH productions, notably the last few in the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park. They know that space intimately! Their glorious, playful, ripe-for-mystery design for this play is so very suitable not only the play, but the RRA, and capitalizes on its enormity and openness.

MM: Do you ever involve the audience at all and what have been some of the most memorable reactions from viewers?

TJ: I always believe a show is a conversation with the audience. One of our most memorable shows was a torrential downpour for the final show of Macbeth last season. One would expect everyone to leave considering the flash flood warning we all received on our phones! About two-hundred people rushed the front of the stage to watch every minute of the show until curtain call. The heavens opened, yet the angels were on our side that evening.

MM: What kinds of projects do you hope The Classical Theatre of Harlem will be working on in ten years and would you like to discuss anything additional?

TJ: Our vision is to be the next great American theater company. We will be the diversity pipeline for every aspect of theater arts - administrative as well production-wise. We plan to have the kind of impact uptown that the Public theater has downtown.

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