ALBANY — With the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY’s (BTTUNY) recent move to Capital Repertory Theatre, the company is eager to share their stories from their new stage. Currently, they are preparing to launch their newest production at Capital Repertory Theatre with a performance of “Topdog Underdog” starting March 2nd through the 12th.
Whether watching a comedy or drama, fiction or a true story, when people leave the theater after watching a BTTUNY show, founder Jean-Remy Monnay hopes that the conversation will give the audience something to think about as they leave the theater.
An upcoming play has a focus on the Tulsa Race Riot. After Monnay made a trip to Tulsa and met with three known survivors, he focused on how experiences fuel his work. “I met with them and we talked. I can come home and do this show and educate others about it.”
Currently hosted at Capital Rep, BTTUNY is eagerly anticipating performing “Topdog Underdog,” while busily planning for their next season and show, “Hoodoo Love,” which will premiere on Thursday, June 01, through Sunday, June 11.
“When I started, I didn’t know if I could do a play with seven actors. Now I can decide to do a play with 20 actors and have no problem finding the actors,” said Monnay enthusiastically. “You have people like Capital Rep and Proctors reaching out to give us a home; that is huge.”
Proctors, BTTUNY, and Capital Rep are collaborating to keep their commitment to diversity onstage and off as an element of “our DNA” continuing all year. CEO Philip Morris added, reflecting on their future planned events, “We’ll be doing it year round, as we look at those calendars that celebrate diversity, and we’ll be responding to them.”
In the coming month of February for Black History Month, Proctors in Schenectady will be hosting a series of films, including “Malcom X” on Feb. 9 and “Akeelah and the Bee” on Thursday, Feb. 16.
On Feb. 23, Jordan Peele’s hit film “NOPE” will screen for free with pre-show trivia, free candy, and popcorn, and have post-show refreshments, music, and raffle winners. Upcoming shows in 2023 to anticipate will be on Tuesday, May 23 to Sunday, May 28 as Proctors presents the acclaimed Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations.”
“The environment today is more welcoming than it was ten years ago or even five,” reflected Sheilah London Miller, who is the creative artist and board president for BTTUNY. “‘Creatives’ have blossomed within the area, with more opportunities for people of color… Our goal is to get more people of color to learn about the theater, to learn what this magic is really all about. Right now, it’s ripe for that.”
BTTUNY was born from Jean-Remy Monnay’s observations about local theater. His passion for theater began in Haiti, where he was actively involved in theatre since childhood. Once moving to Upstate New York in 1997, he noted that “nobody around here was giving a person of color a chance of reaching out to make the local stage more diverse. That’s when I decided: ‘I need to start a theater company to give those people a chance, to make the local stage more diverse’.”
After retiring from his work with the state, Monnay decided to focus on his passion for theater. Founded in 2009, the company was originally called Soul Rebel Performance Troupe. They toured in libraries, colleges, and cafes, with the aim of reaching out to adults and children of all ages to encourage them to get involved in theater. In 2018, the name was changed to Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY.
“The area up here, I wasn’t sure it was ready for a theater company with the word ‘Black’ in it,” said Monnay. “This is the kind of thing most people don’t realize.”
It was a meeting with Nate Jacob, artistic director of the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, that encouraged him to embrace the name change.
“We were the same troupe five years ago, but the world wasn’t ready to receive what they are now,” said Sheilah London Miller. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we have come a long way.”
BTTUNY is non-profit and relies on volunteers. The costs of acquiring the rights to a script, as well as the costs of production, are high. Despite there being a “long way to go,” Jean-Remy Monnay is “not going to give up” amid the financial struggles to support the theater company.
He added, “It’s great to go on our website to donate, but we also need people to volunteer and come and help, whether it’s to build a set, be part of a production, or usher.”
It’s moments in the industry like watching actress Sheryl Lee Ralph’s 2022 Emmy win that keep London Miller motivated to continue. “That’s the spirit; that’s the faith that keeps me going. That’s what I want to see in the future. This is what survival looks like, and this is what excellence looks like. It’s not something that’s handed to you; you have to work for it.”
“If we were a white theatre company doing the same thing, we would probably be much further ahead,” agrees Monnay. “You have to work 10 times harder. But I’m grateful for the support that we have gotten. We are not in the same place where we started.”
London Miller also draws strength from her childhood love of theater, a bond that first united her and Monnay. “I love theater. I’ve always been that kid in school, from Sunday school on up. I was always in plays, in the junior choir, in the youth choir.”
“I met Remy in the theater world. I was intrigued by what he did and how he did it. It was all about Black and people of color doing things written by people of color.”
With the goal of learning as much as possible about theater, she has been an actor, director, assistant director, and involved in wardrobe, set decoration, and writing. She aspires to write a play that will be performed by the company, and her newest theatrical aspiration is to learn about lighting.
Education, from the actors onstage to the audience watching them, is at the core of BTTUNY’s mission. “They call me an activist because of the kinds of shows that we do, because we tell stories that fight injustice and racism and educate others to fight oppression… I put my activism on stage,” said Monnay. “Through actors and through performers, we put it onstage and educate people. Our theater is about education and diversity.”
BTTUNY’s dream is to eventually own their own theatre— for BTTUNY, it is a matter of when, not if— where workshops can be hosted for all ages. The goal is to create youth programs, senior programs, training, and workshops.
“We want people to know that you don’t have to be what they tell you, or what they deny you, or every door that’s shut,” said London Miller. “That’s okay, we’re going to open up another door for you… The industry is never going to go away. We’re not going to let it go away… We want you to walk into BTTUNY’s environment, or space of theater, and say, ‘Where have I been? What took me so long to get here?’”
For further information on the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY’s upcoming shows, story, and how to volunteer and donate, visit https://www.blacktheatretroupeupstateny.org and their Facebook page, @Blacktroupeupstate.