Springfield Gardens’ theater with a flavor of the islands

By Kevin Zimmerman

In April 2014, Hillcrest High School theater teacher Harlan Penn traveled to Guyana as part of a church mission, but took time to meet with several acting companies while there.

His grandparents emigrated from the Bahamas and his wife, Claudette, had come to New York from Jamaica, so Penn, 38, always had an interest in Caribbean culture.

And his career in stage design — he works at Hillcrest High’s Theatre Institute as technical director as well as a freelance designer — plays to his interest in what happens behind the curtain.

He was impressed with the burgeoning theater scene located in the country’s capital city of Georgetown, but quickly noticed something was missing.

“Mainly there was a technical theater shortage,” Penn said. “They needed technicians and people who could build sets, make costumes and run the lighting. I figured I could build a partnership with them.”

Back home in Elmont, L.I., Penn decided his first step should be to raise money for the effort. So he set about to co-produce a show with the Theater Guild of Guyana. Unfortunately, his work proved futile.

“It all fell through,” he said. “The thing is, to raise money here, you have to be part of a theater company.”

So, the deacon at the Springfield Gardens Church of Christ figured he would start his own.

Within a couple of months of his trip, Penn formed and received non-profit status for his American-Caribbean Theatre Alliance. By August of last year, the group had staged its first production, “Uncle Joe’s Patty Shop.”

The original comedy, written by Penn, was set in a patty shop — the Jamaican version of an empanada, a patty comes with a variety of fillings and baked in a flaky shell — and focused on the employees, customers and owners of the Chinese restaurant next door.

Through a series of misunderstandings and outright deceptions, the characters struggle with their dreams of coming to America.

“Getting a U.S. visa is a really big thing in the Caribbean,” Penn said.

That’s a theme Penn carried over to the group’s second show, “What Goes Up, Must Come Down,” which it performed in January.

In that play, also set in Jamaica and also written by Penn, a young married couple basically prove they are willing to do anything to get to the United States. The wife even ends up buying a U.S. visa.

Because the shows have been staged at the Springfield Gardens Church of Christ, Penn finds it has been easier to write his own works than to find a piece that would be appropriate for the setting.

“Because we’re in a church, you can’t use some (offensive) language,” he said. “And I enjoy writing.”

While the first two productions were light and breezy comedies where love triumphs, the troupe’s next show treads into political, racial and more serious territory.

“Sanco: A Guyanese Thriller!” begins with the murder of a young Indo-Guyanese woman, the daughter of one of the country’s political ministers, and follows two police detectives, the veteran Afro-Guyanese and rookie Indo-Guyanese, as they attempt to find her killer before the country collapses into a racially charged civil war.

Although purely fiction, Penn’s new play draws on the real history of racial conflicts that continue to divide Guyana’s two largest ethnic groups.

“I wanted to base it there so I could dive into the culture,” Penn said. “I am much more familiar with Jamaica, but after studying it (Guyana), I realized they were very similar.”

It’s these similarities that Penn wants to explore and share with audiences.

The mission statement for the group emphasizes Penn’s desire to present the theater of the Caribbean diaspora.

He also intends to pursue his original goal of developing partnerships with Caribbean theater companies, including the Theater Guild of Guyana, Trinidad Theatre Workshop and Kingston, Jamaica’s Little Theatre.

“By having a background in theatrical design, I feel that I can bring the highest quality of professionalism to productions presented by ACTA,” Penn said. “The Caribbean and theater have a long history together. Evidence of live theater being performed by African and Indian descendants can be traced back to the early days of British colonialism.”

If you go

“Sanco: A Guyanese Thriller!”

When: April 10 – April 19, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 5 pm

Where: The Springfield Gardens Church of Christ, 144-04 Farmers Blvd., Springfield Gardens

Cost: Free

Contact: (347) 551-7468

Website: www.actashows.com

Reach News Editor Kevin Zimmerman by e-mail at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4541.

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