By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
As performing arts theatres across the city hold on just a bit longer during this COVID-19 lockdown, a Black theatre company that is celebrating 20 years of offering stellar content in the city is learning to pivot to a virtual format and bring performances online so audiences from around the world can appreciate their production.
Congo Square Theatre’s new managing director, Charlique C. Rolle, shared her views about the upcoming 2020-21 season with the Crusader. “Congo Square Theatre has spent the past 20 years producing raw, real, and relevant work reflecting and elevating the voices of Black and African Diasporic artists. Even as the unknowns of producing stand before us, we charge forward innovating and iterating as we launch this new season! We are even more committed to creating transformative Black theater for all versions of the ‘stage’ in these times,” said Rolle.
She explained that offering performances for folks to see virtually is another extension for Congo Square. “The newness of my role and this season brings a lot of excitement to Congo Square and, in the midst of it all, we are dreaming and processing what the next 20 years of Congo Square looks like–which just so happens to include adding virtual offerings to our repertoire.”
Rolle said that virtual presentations are necessary during this quarantine, since theatres are not allowed to physically open up to patrons. “We want to continue to honor the sacredness of live theatre, but also reimagine how we can continue to grow and expand. Moving virtually has its challenges—just as everyone else is experiencing—but we are being nimble and malleable in this season. It is also very helpful to have an amazing group of artists, staff, and board members working together in this time of transition, and we are taking it one day at a time and learning a lot along the way. We miss our Congo family and audiences and want to provide opportunities for them to continue to connect with us.”
She added: “Even amid what seems to be such chaotic times, Congo Square is committed to be rooted and grounded in the community, for the community, and by the community. As reflected in our mission, our history, and in our organization, we are deeply committed to creating space for Black voices and Black stories to be heard, told, and elevated. We remain committed to raising up the next generation of Black voices and are creating opportunities for this as well, including our Industry Training Institute, where we hold monthly workshops led by our ensemble members sharing industry skills such as Self-Tape, Auditioning, and the Business of Acting.”
The first play that will be offered during the upcoming season is “Hit ‘em On The Blackside,” a new online series that features Congo Square’s award-winning African-American ensemble in bi-weekly, sketch comedy webisodes posted for free viewing on the company’s social media platforms. The series is directed by Congo Square Ensemble Member Anthony Irons, who helmed the company’s successful production of Douglas Turner Ward’s satirical fantasy “Day of Absence,” which closed performances early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hit ‘Em on the Blackside” webisodes launch on October 9, and the webisodes will be compiled into a full show for free viewing on the website. Part one of the show airs December. Then from March-June 2021 the new bi-weekly webisodes will resume, with a part two of the show posted in June. “Hit ‘em On The Blackside” features artists Ron Conner, Alexis J. Roston, Tiffany Addison and Kelvin Roston Jr.
While the virtual performance is free, viewers will have the opportunity to donate to the theatre. “COVID has been a very difficult time for everyone, and we want to be able to share our art in the middle of it all and continue to make our work accessible. While ‘Hit ’em On The Blackside’ will be available for free, we will offer viewers the opportunity to donate and partner with Congo Square financially. We are very grateful to have support from our funders and donors to help sustain us during this time and we continue to rely on them to help us remain in the years to come!” said Rolle.
Irons spoke about the aim of his new play. “First and foremost, the aim of ‘Hit ‘em On The Blackside’ is to offer an entertaining experience with memorable characters, surprising moments, and engaging stories. The show also fulfills several other, important goals, namely to make sure our mission of creating transformative, provocative art is kept alive in this new era of remote interaction; to introduce Congo Square Theatre to a broader range of audiences; and to create an adaptable and collaborative platform for the acting ensemble to reflect and respond to many of today’s prevalent, socio-political issues.”
He expounded on the universal appeal of the play. “I want people to see and hear themselves, to feel like their point of view is authentically reflected but to also know that their point of view may be, at times, challenged. We push buttons at Congo Square. The show is riddled with comedy, but we’re not just going for quick, easy laughs,” he said. “In one episode, you’ll see characters debate over remote learning for schools. In another episode, you’ll see the angst over police brutality. With thought-provoking content, from multiple angles, ‘Hit ‘em On The Blackside’ can foster meaningful dialogue. After all the laughing, at the end of each show, viewers can, hopefully, gain an appreciation for ideas and opinions that may be different from their own but just as valuable to our collective conversations.”
Other productions for the upcoming season include a reimagined digital version of “Festival on the Square” from February 4-6, 2021, including a 10-minute play festival with live readings and “Conversations at the Square” highlighting Black artists and industry professionals, facilitated by Congo Square ensemble members. “Festival on the Square” honors the original Congo Square marketplace in New Orleans, where people of color communed through music and dance and celebrated the cultures of their homelands.
Finally, Congo Square will present a live production in late spring or summer 2021, based on updated health guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new work seeks to speak to the current moment and facilitate healing for the Black community. Production details and dates will be announced next year.
More information about all of Congo Square season offerings can be found on the website: www.congosquaretheatre.org.