Diversity initiative rejuvenates 13th Street Rep

An injection of new talent, on stage and behind the scenes, is giving one of Downtown’s anchor theatres a few new pillars. Photo by Sean Egan.

An injection of new talent, on stage and behind the scenes, is giving one of Downtown’s anchor theatres a few new pillars. Photo by Sean Egan.

BY TRAV S.D. | How comforting it is to know that in this too-too transient city, where beloved institutions bite the dust daily, there are some that still endure.

A case in point is the 13th Street Repertory Theatre, an anchor in New York’s Downtown theatre scene since 1972. Two pillars of the company are New York institutions in their own right. Founder and Artistic Director Edith O’Hara turned 100 years old this year, and continues to serve the company in an emeritus capacity — and the company’s landmark production of Israel Horovitz’s “Line” has been open for an astounding 42 years (surpassing the original run of “The Fantasticks,” which lasted from 1960 through 2002).

But like relationships and sharks (to misappropriate a Woody Allen line), a theatre must keep moving or it will die. And this company is very much alive and kicking. To find out their secret, we spoke with 13th Street’s public relations representative, Jay Michaels.

“Phase two for 13th Street began in 2014 when Susan Merson came on board as Managing Artistic Director, and she began the resurgence and rejuvenation the company is now experiencing. She brought in lots of new companies into the space. While she remains very much involved with the board and staff of 13th Street, last month she was succeeded by our current Artistic Director, Joe Battista.”

Battista, whom Michaels describes as a “journeyman theatre artist with a lot of experience,” is a graduate of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, who has been on the staff of 13th Street for many years.

The current version of 13th Street Rep’s long-running “Line” acknowledges 21st century realities, such as smartphones and earbuds. Courtesy Women of Color Productions.

The current version of 13th Street Rep’s long-running “Line” acknowledges 21st century realities, such as smartphones and earbuds. Photo courtesy Women of Color Productions.

One of Battista’s first official acts in his new position was to revisit one of 13th Street’s primary programming staples — the four decade-plus production of Israel Horowitz’s “Line.” To lead the effort, he hired Jacqueline Wade, founder and executive producer of Women of Color Productions (wocproductions.com), to recast and direct a rebooted version of the absurdist classic about a group of strangers jostling for first place in a line for some unspecified event. The now-predominantly African American, multiracial cast is designed to “reflect the diversity” of contemporary New York and has been tweaked to include such facts of 21st century reality as the smartphone and earbuds.

The resulting production’s success prompted Battista to throw the theatre’s support behind an entire series of works created by, and about, African Americans. According to Michaels, “Joe liked ‘Line’ so much, and Jacqueline had all these wonderful ideas about how to push the envelope and make a statement. So he asked her, ‘What else you got?’ ”

The next show out of the pipeline was “Black Panther Women,” an original ensemble piece written and directed by Wade. This historical drama features an all-female, all-African American cast of a dozen, who tell the story of the rise and fall of the controversial Black Panther Party (1966-1982) from the point of view of its female members.

“Black Panther Women” plays at 13th Street Rep through Aug. 7. Courtesy Women of Color Productions.

“Black Panther Women” plays at 13th Street Rep through Aug. 7. Photo courtesy Women of Color Productions.

The two-act docu-play focuses especially on key players in the party’s evolution, like Elaine Brown, writer, singer and Black Panther Party Chair from 1974 to 1977; and Afeni Shakur, mother of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. The cast also portray male characters in the history, such as Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and J. Edgar Hoover. Audiences have been flocking to the groundbreaking drama. According to Michaels, houses have been selling out. “Black Panther Women” is slated to play through August 7.

Also part of 13th Street’s diversity initiative is “Yaki Yim Bamboo,” a family musical set on an imaginary Caribbean island, which plays through June 12. And, coming in July, Michaels is directing his own steampunk production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” starring Matt de Rogatis.

June2_Rep_Edith

L to R: Jenny O’Hara, Edith O’Hara, Carol Schaefer, Joe Battista and Arturo Toulinov. Photo courtesy 13th Street Repertory Theatre.

The company’s revitalization has been so effective that it has attracted independent work by outside producers, such as “The Over Share Cabaret: Sex, Love and Show Tunes,” a regular variety show presented in the 65-seat space by performer Mel DeLancey, who calls it a “fun place to work” that allows her “more ownership of the performance space than you would have in a typical cabaret venue.” She first rented the space back in February and according to DeLancey, “The managers liked my energy and wanted a more youthful presence in the space.”

From a theatre company that’s approaching the half-century mark that’s a healthy sign.

The 13th St. Repertory Theatre is located at 50 W. 13th St. (btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves). For info, visit 13thstreetrep.org or call 212-675-6677.

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