Thursday, November 10, 2011
“Community-rooted”, “volunteer-nourished” and “alive” are the words that Jenny Justice used to describe Durham Family Theatre in downtown Durham.
Justice co-founded the theatre in August 2010.
“In a city that is about 45 percent African-Americans, 45 percent White and 10 percent Hispanic, going forward without diversity would be to fail in our mission, and if you don't live your mission, then why do you exist?” Justice said.
The theater’s first show, “Alice! A Mad Musical Adventure,” which she co-wrote with Ryan Gunzel, included actors ranging from eight to sixty-eight years old.
“Everything we’ve done has affirmed our mission,” Justice said of the first play. “It was exactly as we had envisioned.”
The theater is performing, “As You Like It”, a play with a 50 percent African-American cast, but it did not start out that way.
The audition for the play consisted only of Caucasians.
“People think it’s a white people’s play,” said Justice, “but I wanted to broaden the possibilities and cross boundaries.”
Justice found her lead actors after attending a theater class at North Carolina Central University (NCCU).
“I think if you want people to be involved, you have to reach out to them,” Justice said. “So we made a policy that if our show doesn’t have diversity, we don’t go forward with it.”
The cast now includes not only students from NCCU, but also a teacher and high school students from Durham School of the Arts who are working as apprentices to Justice.
“Half of the cast is African-Americans and most of the cast hadn’t even read Shakespeare,” said Justice. “They downloaded films and scripts to their iPhones and worked every minute for two months.”
Sherena Siler, a senior theater and psychology major at NCCU, plays Celia, the emotional daughter of Duke Frederick and Rosalind’s dearest friend.
“I have done one Shakespeare before, Romeo and Juliet, in high school,” Siler said. “Being an aspiring actress, Shakespeare is something that you have to do once. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
“We’ve been working since the end of August, four nights a week with pretty intense rehearsals,” Siler said. “The vocabulary and dialogue is really not in this period and before you can act, you have to interpret first and it brings a level of difficulty, but Ms. Jenny really helped a lot with the dialogue. She’s a Shakespeare guru.”
All the hard work paid off during their opening night last Friday.
“It was really successful from the audience’s perspective,” Siler said. “They were able to understand and were laughing, which tells us that the dialogue was interpreted well.”
Tehila Rosenblatt-Farrell, fourteen, started taking acting lessons with Justice after seeing the theater’s first play, “Alice”, and performed in a major role in a play put on by the theater this summer.
“Jenny really cares about the students and takes time to figure out what they need to work on, “said Rosenblatt-Farrell.
Rosenblatt-Farrell learned more than acting skills from the classes.
“She became more confident,” said Tehila’s mother, Coco Rosenblatt-Farrell. “It wasn’t just intellectual learning. She got it in her bones, in her daily life, in her school life.”
Coco Rosenblatt-Farrell said that her daughter’s acting skills actually helped her once when she was preparing for a performance at friend’s house.
“I take singing lessons and I was going to be doing a performance at a friend’s home,” said Rosenblatt-Farrell. “Tehila came in and sat down and coached me to being on stage, the body language and postures to use, and she credited it all to the Durham Family Theatre.”
Justice said that the theater could not have started without the help of the community.
“We wouldn’t exists without them,” Justice said. “I didn’t start the space at all. This theater was started completely on community volunteers.”
The Hayti Heritage Center provided the stage for the current play while Trinity Presbyterian Church provided space for the theater’s summer camps.
“We’ve really been blessed,” Justice said. “It’s taken a lot of pavement pounding.”
“I’m a big believer in building community through volunteer efforts,” said Justice, “and I want this to be a place where families can create together.”
Durham Family Theatre has performances of the current show, “As You Like It” this Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. in St. Joseph’s Performance Hall at the Hayti Heritage Center.