By Naeisha Rose
As we say goodbye to our winter blues, Black Spectrum Theatre is ready to help entertain you this spring with its first annual Caribbean Music, Theatre & Comedy Festival at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans.
“It is a festival that grew out of our programming that we have been doing the past few years,” said Black Spectrum Theatre founder Carl Clay, the executive producer of the new event. “It’s a part of our Immigration Initiative. We’ve always been doing Caribbean works before, and this gave us the opportunity to expand that goal.”
Clay hopes that “new Americans” will see this festival as a reflection of their culture, and the event will be a catalyst to bring Caribbean Americans of all backgrounds and faiths together, while sharing perspectives through art with those that aren’t Caribbean.
“The Caribbean is a treasure trove of artists, music, visual arts, and theater,” Clay said. “We want to acknowledge artists that have been doing their own thing and new works. It’s speaking to this population that for all intents and purposes, today more than ever, has this spotlight on them.”
Clay believes that with all the anti-immigration talk out there today, it is vital to have a platform where their struggles can be celebrated.
“We want to use this as a catalyst to bring communities together,” he said.
The festival will feature musical acts, stage plays, and even stand-up comedy sets, all from artists with roots in the Caribbean.
One of the performers aiming to help bring about solidarity through his music is reggae icon Denroy Morgan.
“It is a very important thing for us, for black people to recognize our culture,” Morgan said. “It is important that we can come together in a foreign country and represent the Caribbean culture, or wherever we come from as black folks, so yes I respect [the Comedy festival] and support it.”
The Jamaican native, who splits his time between his home country and Atlanta, believes the United States is in a crisis.
“People are divided. People are having problems, and it is not just the immigration problem, but sinful and evil things that have nothing to do with immigration.”
The very concept of “immigration” — labeling people based on which side of arbitrary borders they were born on — disturbs Morgan.
“Immigration shouldn’t even exist in the first place. The Earth is the land and man should go and flow. But man is selfish and greedy, and that is why we take part of the Earth and slice it up as a pie,” said the Rastafarian. “We say ‘this is my country and this is your country and you can’t come in my country.’ No man has that right.”
Morgan said the theme of his new album is unity.
“The government needs unity. Family needs unity. The nations of the Earth need unity. That is why the album is called ‘Musical Unity,’ because music is a unifying thing,” Morgan said. “If we look at what makes music good — harmony — that is what it will take to make the human race become good again.”
Morgan will be performing at the festival on Saturday, April 8, at 9:45 p.m. His album will be released nationwide on April 21 and is available for preorder at VP Records on March 30.
One of the established playwrights who’s very excited about showcasing her work in the World’s Borough for the first time is Ingrid Griffith, who is originally from Guyana. Her play “Demarara Gold” is an autobiographical piece about the immigrant experience of being a “barrel child” — a term for children who are left behind with relatives as their parents seek work abroad and send them back goods and money in containers until they can be reunited in their parents’ new country.
“It’s about my parents working hard. They each have two jobs, and I never thought about that when I was in Guyana, that they would be working so hard, and when I came to America I never see them because they were busy at work,” Griffith said. “That is the truth, and that is the immigrant experience that I know. Not immigrants being terrorists like the current administration says we are, or that we are out to squeeze America.”
Griffith doesn’t care for the stereotype that immigrants are lazy because, as she puts it, “they are part of this system’s fabric, and not sponging off of the system.”
Her play explores what it’s like to be separated from her parents for six years because of a delay in her visa, trying to transition from city life in Guyana to the suburbs of New York, and learning about a new culture, which for many immigrants can take a lot of time.
Griffith will be performing at Black Spectrum on Saturday, April 1, at 8 p.m., and will be touring with her play throughout the country and internationally this spring and summer.
Harlan Penn is a teacher at Cambria Heights’ MS 147, a professional set decorator, and one of the up-and-coming playwrights who Black Spectrum decided to spotlight this year. He is also the founder of the American Caribbean Theatre Alliance.
After seeing plays throughout the Caribbean, and learning about the lack of resources for those theatre programs, Penn decided he had to do something about it.
“Going down to the Caribbean several times and visiting theater companies down there, there is a big lack of resources. So I really wanted to find a way to help the cause by starting this company with the ultimate goal of having exchange programs with companies in the Caribbean,” Penn said. “We find ways to bring students here and have sent professionals there, and vice versa so there is an exchange of knowledge.”
While working to help these theatre companies acquire more lighting equipment, costumes, and set pieces, Penn was inspired to explore playwriting himself.
“I started writing Caribbean plays, and my goal is to write at least one play for each English-speaking island. I did Jamaica, Guyana, and for Trinidad I did some research, because I like to write about social things,” said the Bahamian. “The emphasis of the story is really what is going on as far as drug trafficking, gang problems and things of that nature.”
Despite his newfound love of writing and his set design background, finding a venue for his plays in New York was not easy.
“We do a lot of stuff at my church in Springfield Gardens, and a lot of the material that I was finding was inappropriate to do at a church,” Penn said.
But he didn’t stop following his dream — or seeking out places that will feature his work — and he’s happy to be working with Black Spectrum Theatre.
“I think it’s great. southeast Queens has a big Caribbean community, and there are very few outlets for Caribbean arts. Everyone thinks of music, but when it comes to the drama and plays, things of that nature are underrepresented,” said Penn.
His play “My Countrymen” will be featured at the festival from April 21–23, at 8 p.m. for the first two performances and 4 p.m. for the Sunday matinee.
Unfortunately, with cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts looming, underrepresentation may become an even worse problem for theater, as arts organizations that showcase the work of people of color are starved of funding.
Clay is also concerned about what the lack of funds would mean for Black Spectrum Theatre. His organization provides performing arts training in theatre, film, music and dance to daycare centers, elementary schools, intermediate schools and homeless shelters. This includes specialty arts like costuming, hair and makeup, so that everyone “is exposed to the arts.”
“We get funding from the National Endowment of the Arts to do some of our school-based residencies, so this will impact us,” Clay said. “This is a negative for the entire country. The arts have always been a source of healing, information, education and culture. So it would be a real shame if those cuts are allowed to go through.”
Clay pointed out that arts training for the young is about more than teaching them how to be artists themselves, but about laying the foundations for an enriched life.
“When you provide culture to young children, toddlers, and elementary schoolchildren and even high school students, you are preparing them for the future no matter what they are going into,” he said. “It also allows them to broaden their perspectives on the options out there in entertainment. Some young people today only think of entertainment as what they can find on their cell phone.”
You can broaden your own perspective at the Caribbean Music, Theatre & Comedy Festival from April 1 to 23 at Roy Wilkins Park.