Cleveland Public Theatre, which normally does not run a summer season, made an exception this year in response to an exceptional year of theaters left dark because of a global pandemic. CPT’s Outdoor Stage performances will run July 1 through August 7, with more than ten offerings of free live theatre, music, poetry and more, all produced and performed by local artists on stages protected by tents.
“During this time, we insist that art is an essential business,” states Raymond Bobgan, CPT’s executive artistic director, who began planning with his staff for a summer season back in March and April. “We just felt like if we’re an essential business, and it’s possible for us to gather live and in person, we need to do that.”
Fittingly, CPT will open the 2021 Free Summer Season with Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation, written and directed by CPT’s Artistic Associate, India Nicole Burton. Cast with seven actors of color, the play follows the stories of three prominent women who were members of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Movement and explores the lives and unique experiences of Black Women in America.
A workshop production of Burton’s play scheduled for April of last year had to be cancelled due to the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, so the theater decided to reschedule it as the first production of the outdoor summer season. “That immediately came to us that this is a beautiful piece and we should continue to workshop it,” Bobgan says. “We’re intending to premiere it in February, so let’s give it one more workshop and do it outside.”
The summer season will also feature workshop pieces from its two ensembles-in-residence: Teatro Público de Cleveland, a collective of Latino theater artists, and Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, CPT’s project developing work for, by, and with Arabic-speaking communities. Additionally, the Student Theatre Enrichment Program (STEP), Cleveland’s longest-running arts and job training program for teens, will give two public performances during its eight-week summer program for youths 14 to 19.
“All of these pieces center black and brown stories, which is not something new for us,” Bobgan explains. “We didn’t really think about that; we were just programming what made sense to us in the moment.”
While the productions are focused on stories of African American or people of color or issues of racism, the plays are not just for that group of people. They are intended for the wider public.
Bobgan, who is of Middle Eastern heritage, says: “When a group like Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi presents a play and a majority of the characters are well-rounded human beings, that contradicts 95% of what you see on TV. Nine times out of ten, those characters are presented as two-dimensional villains. So, the work of a group like Masrah is leading to greater freedom for me personally, and when I’m more free, everyone is more free. The critical thing is just being able to find places that different people can come together and hear each other’s stories.”
CPT also opened up its outdoor stages to other artists and arts organizations with relationships to the theater, including Twelve Literary Arts, which will feature performance poetry in public spaces; poet Siaara Freeman, who will perform her piece Black Women & Femmes: A Lineage of Language; and playwright/director/actor Eric Schmiedl, who will perform his play about the ups and downs of the Cleveland Browns, The Kardiac Kid. The Dark Room open-mic performances of new work will continue through the summer, and CPT will announce its 2021-2022 season on Saturday, July 17.
In addition to its annual “Arts in August” program of free performances in Lincoln Park in partnership with Tremont West Development Corporation, Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, and LAND Studio, CPT will venture into a new realm this summer by offering programming from Panther Women, Teatro Público de Cleveland, Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, and STEP at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.
“I think a lot about the strength of the immigrant communities in Cleveland, many of which have been here for four or five generations,” Bobgan says. “When they come see a Masrah production, they will hear a very specific story, but that reflects the stories of their ancestors. So, we’re thrilled to be part of the cultural gardens and that journey of understanding not just a place of tolerance, but a place of celebrating.”
Fully aware of the disruptive political turbulence exacerbating wealth disparity, impeding social equity in the U.S., and chipping away at the Constitution, he concludes: “In the European tradition, democracy and theater were created at the same time. We’re here to support democracy, so now more than ever is when we need theater that is serving that purpose.”
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American and Time.com. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in February 2018.
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