By Michael Kleiner
The Broadway musical “Hamilton” has achieved great success and acclaim with a predominantly African American cast, including in the roles of white politicians. At Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre Group (QTG), they believe their casts should also reflect the demographics of the neighborhood, and as a result, QTG strives for diversity in the casts of their productions, thereby also building interest in theater from audiences that normally wouldn’t attend a show.
“Our mission is to bring epic works of classic drama and literature to the contemporary stage,” says QTG Managing Director Patricia Stranahan. “We employ color- and gender-blind casting, and although we do not have a hard and fast rule, we attempt to hire casts that reflect the racial make-up of our community. We want to be a space where people come together not only to experience an event as a community but also to think about how to be a community.”
The penultimate production of QTG’s seventh season, beginning June 3 (until June 18), is Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which still takes place in Russia, but with an American twist in 2017. Steven Wright will be in the lead role as Vanya, while Jessica Johnson will play the lead female role as Sonya. They are two of the four African Americans in the cast; Daniel Ison as Yefim and Rosalyn Jamal as Maria are the others. The other five members of the cast are white.
Wright and Johnson are making their QTG debuts. Wright played Sen. Barack Obama in 1812 Productions’ “This is The Week That is” in 2002, but the role of Vanya has been a life-long dream. “I have always been a fan of Chekhov,” said Wright. “In college I read the show and said I thought this (playing Vanya) was never going to happen. The stars aligned at the right time now.”
Is playing Uncle Vanya as an African-American just an actor playing another role? “I told (Director) Alex (Burns), the action is playing the work and see how that dynamic comes through almost naturally,” said Wright. “You don’t change the relationships. You don’t change who the people are. You don’t change the text. You do it outright. You have to honor it for it to work … When you finally say, ‘I’m going to be an African American Uncle Vanya,’ you still have to play Uncle Vanya and know the material will reverberate the same way, but it will hit people in a different way because of what they see visually.”
For Burns, the challenge is not with the actors but making the show relevant to the audience. “The real challenge is that Vanya and Sonya have spent their entire lives working on this estate for the sake of the professor and his new wife,” said Burns. “(In our production) the professor and his wife are white, Sonya is biracial, and Vanya is African American. There is a real fascinating tension that this creates which is very relevant right now.
“On the final sequence, Vanya has given up on life, and he’s seeing it as a black man. Sonya is trying to inspire him to continue the struggle, and that has a different resonance right now when looking at it from an African American’s perspective. Where is the struggle? Where do you acquiesce and allow some forms of systemic racism? Where do you fight? Personally, I think that realpolitik is very much part of the Chekhov inherently. Who’s the worker? Who’s the aristocrat? To see that in an American way with the addition of race really resonates. I don’t feel it’s asking questions the play isn’t already asking.”
Wright feels the current political climate is the perfect time to play Uncle Vanya and Mt. Airy the ideal neighborhood. “I’m a believer in using theater as a movement of change,” says Wright. “You realize the universality of a piece 120 years old, and it still speaks to present day struggles and conflicts. What I love about this area is the diversity, and everyone you come across is happy to be in the neighborhood. So, I am not expecting a lot of opposition.”
Wright, who went to high school in Cheltenham, is a member of Actors Equity and has performed on some of Philadelphia’s most celebrated stages. Known for his comedy, he appeared in “Rizzo” at Theatre Exile/Philadelphia Theatre Company; was cast as Othello at Curio Theater Company; appeared in “Hairy Ape,” “Death Of a Salesman,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at EgoPo Classic Theatre; at the Walnut Street Theater in “A Christmas Carol,” “Afterplay” and “Finian’s Rainbow,” and many more.
For tickets, visit http://quintessencetheatre.org or call 215-987-4450.