Upper Valley theaters stage plays bound for New York

  • Actors, from left, Benton Greene, Marcus Gladney Jr., Dimitri Carter and Cornelius Davidson rehearse a scene from "Esai's Table," which will have its world premiere in White River Junction in a partnership between JAG Productions and New York's Cherry Lane Theatre. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Tommy Crawford, left, and Christoper Sears appear in a scene from the New York production of "Only Yesterday," a play and production that originated at White River Junction's Northern Stage. (Carol Rosegg photograph)

  • From left, Cornelius Davidson, Dimitri Carter and Marcus Gladney Jr., rehearse a scene from "Esai's Table." (Rob Strong photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 10:00:28 PM

Jarvis Green knows how to revive a play, after staging the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the August Wilson drama Fences and the night-in-the-life mood piece Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, among others, over his first eight years in the Upper Valley.

Now his JAG Productions is bringing a brand new one to term: In preparation for an off-Broadway run in 2020, Green is producing the world premiere of Nathan Yungerberg’s magical-realist exploration of black sensibility, Esai’s Table, starting this week at the Briggs Opera House.

“We’re still in the birthing process,” Green said between rehearsals last week. “We want it to enter into the world with a big splash. With new works, you’re discovering new things all the time. We’re all part of midwifing so many elements out of nothing.”

The debut of Esai’s Table — whose next stop is the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York — is part of a continuing transfer of theatrical productions between White River Junction and Manhattan.

On Sept. 29, Norwich resident Bob Stevens’ play Only Yesterday, a re-imagining of a crucial moment in the evolution of The Beatles, completed a run of full houses at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne directed her original cast and crew, including Tunbridge resident Olivia Swayze as a Beatles groupie, there less than a year after the play’s premiere at the Barrette Center for the Arts early in 2018.

“It was magical from start to finish, and it would never have happened without Northern Stage,” Stevens, a retired TV screenwriter and producer, said this week. “It’s wonderful to have a really accomplished regional theater right here, with a direct line to New York.”

Only Yesterday follows in the footsteps of two other plays that Dunne and her Northern Stage creative team nurtured from a playwright’s embryonic outline through workshops and staged readings in White River Junction to fully-realized productions at 59E59. In October 2016, under the direction of Dartmouth College theater professor Peter Hackett, the company staged Joe Sutton’s drama Orwell in America. And in January 2019 at 59E59, Dunne directed and Emmy-winning Norwich resident Gordon Clapp starred in Trick or Treat, Jack Neary’s dramedy about a dysfunctional family in a failing New England mill town.

Just making it to the Barrette Center was magical enough for Stevens, whose TV writing credits include Night Court, The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle and Murphy Brown.

“In television you have to have so many lucky breaks, have so many things go your way to have any success at all, and that’s been my experience to some extent with this,” he said. “It was an extraordinary thing to be part of. It was great to see the chemistry evolve between Christopher (Sears, as John Lennon) and Tommy (Crawford, as Paul McCartney). They brought so much joy and depth to it. It was very cool to be in Manhattan, just two blocks from where The Beatles first arrived in New York. And it was wonderful to sit in the audience and get to hear the responses people had. They didn’t ever seem to want to go home.”

Stevens added that he and Northern Stage are waiting to learn whether the production might go next to a larger theater in New York, or possibly on the road. Whatever the next destination, he’s not resting on his theatrical laurels.

“I’ve definitely got things I’m working on,” he said. “I’ll go ahead with them as soon as I recover.”

While catching his breath, Stevens said, he’d like to catch one of the performances of Esai’s Table at the Briggs, before it moves on to New York. If he does, he’ll encounter a much more technically complex production than Only Yesterday’s one-set scenario.

With Stevie Walker-Webb directing up-and-coming actors Marcus Gladney Jr. — who appears in two episodes of Barry Jenkins’ upcoming Amazon Prime series The Underground Railroad — Dimitri Carter, Cornelius Davidson and Benton Greene, Esai’s Table also will feature many more bells and whistles than audiences saw during the staged reading that Jarvis Green hosted at his annual JAGfest in 2018.

“People will see it with projections, sound effects and costumes,” Green said. “There’s magic everywhere, with visions of afterlife and constellations. We’re pulling out all the stops.”

All of which is not quite what Green envisioned when he started JAG Productions in 2016 with the aim of reviving established plays focused on African-American themes, including the full, 10-play suite of August Wilson’s “Century Series” of dramas set in Wilson’s native Pittsburgh.

“I never imagined that we would be world-premiering shows,” Green said. “I know, as a theater-goer, that it happens, but I didn’t think it would be this soon we’d be taking something out of development and preparing it for the main stage.”

Green added that the networks he has developed — both within the Upper Valley and in New York — over the last decade have made it possible.

“This co-production with Cherry Lane … there’s no way we could be doing this by ourselves, fiscally and in terms of staff,” Green said. “To be combining resources on something like this is truly a gift.”

JAG’s resources include in-kind donations of housing, by Upper Valley supporters, for the production crew over more than a month of rehearsal, and of transportation for crew and cast to get around the area between rehearsals.

“Throughout the years, cultivating these relationships with the community has been so important,” Green said. “I love the people who engage with us. It’s powerful.”

JAG Productions stages 14 performances of Esai’s Table at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, starting with previews on Thursday and Friday nights. The play opens on Saturday and runs through Oct. 26. For tickets ($35) and more information, visit jagproductionsvt.come/esaistable.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.




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