Vermont may be the second whitest state in the nation, but it has had its own professional black theater since 2015. And the White River Junction-based JAG Productions will present its third annual festival of staged readings of new African-American plays next weekend.
“This organization was built out of my frustration in the American theater’s lack of stories being told about black lives,” explains Jarvis Antonio Green, JAG Productions’ founder and producing artistic director. “JAGfest is a space to create new material for the American theater by black playwrights.”
And this year’s festival goes one step further. JAGfest 3.0 is presenting the work of African-American women.
Four new plays will receive staged readings Feb. 8-10 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. They will be performed by professional actors and directors that JAG Productions has brought to Vermont for the festival.
A veteran professional New York City actor, Green moved to Vermont in 2011 and created a community arts organization in Barnard, BarnArts Center for the Arts. He went on to become director of ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret. Both organizations continue to thrive, but Jarvis had a more personal mission.
“There are very few opportunities I had as an actor outside of the normal canon of your (playwright August) Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry and things like that,” Jarvis said. “Outside of those, there are very few opportunities to have more diverse stories about black lives.”
So Jarvis founded JAG Productions in his chosen state of Vermont. Its inaugural season, 2016-17, earned the New England Theatre Conference’s (NETC) Regional Award for Outstanding Achievement in the American Theatre. The company’s first production was Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” a music-filled coming-of-age story set in an elite prep school for young black men, presented at the Briggs Opera House.
The second production was “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical,” inspired by Civil Rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock Nine. The season concluded with August Wilson’s “Fences,” the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner exploring the evolving African-American experience on the brink of the civil rights movement. Both shows from the second half of the season were produced at Woodstock Town Hall Theatre.
The public response in the Upper Valley, Jarvis said, has been enthusiastic. But another group was even more affected.
“The black folks living here are so grateful, so enthusiastic to come to a theater to see black people on the stage, to see their stories reflected back to them, to be in a space where it is about black lives, black excellence, black art and the energy is high and exciting,” Jarvis said. “Black folks are just beyond the moon that this is here.”
Next weekend’s festival features four very different plays. “The Last Day of Black History Month: A Conversation with a Naked Black Southern Lesbian” (7:30 p.m. Friday) is by Maine Anders and Ayesha Dillabough. Anders’ one-woman look at the underbelly of American history is a multimedia show featuring dance, comedy, music and poetry unveiling hidden truths while facilitating acceptance, compassion and unity.
“Rabbit Summer” (4 p.m. Saturday), by Tracey Conyer Lee, tells of Wilson and Ruby, who have good jobs, a beautiful home, a child and working on another, while Ruby’s best friend, Claire, has just lost her unarmed black husband to the quick trigger of a white cop. Wilson is also a cop.
“If This Be Sin” (7:30 p.m. Saturday), book by Kirya Traber and music by Sissi Liu, is a musical based on the life of the queer Harlem Renaissance entertainer Gladys Bentley. With a full musical score, the show represents Bentley in her early life as an infamous performer in Harlem, as well as her eventual choice to conform and marry a man in the early 1950s.
In a very different vein, “Blanks or Sunday Afternoon, After Church,” is a comedy that follows medical student Reese as she desperately hunts for romance. Unfortunately, her “aunties” — African-American women through history and media — dissuade, distract and try to save her from love’s violent abandonment, something they all experienced, something they all did not survive. It asks, if love conquers all, what happens when it conquers you?
“This festival is a hub, a retreat and a space where we can develop these plays that then will hopefully go on,” Jarvis said. “The purpose is to develop new plays. JAG’s mission is to create the world we want, create the culture we want.”