The Vanguard Theater Company has always been committed to changing the way the community sees theater. It does this through its DREAM commitment — to diversity, reciprocity, education, activism and mentorship. 

Now, thanks to basketball legend Michael Jordan, the company will be able to add to the ways it tries to accomplish its mission. 

Vanguard is the recipient of one of the Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand’s community grants, an initiative of its Black Community Commitment. The program funds grassroots organizations that aim to better Black communities in the areas of economic justice, education, narrative change and social justice.  

Vanguard Theater was one of 48 organizations – and the only one in New Jersey – chosen to receive the grant.

With the funds, Vanguard will be starting a program called the Illuminating New Voices Festival, where it will commission works by 10 emerging theater writers from marginalized communities. The festival will take place in May.

“Oftentimes when we hear stories about Black and brown people, they are not written by the people,” said Janeece Freeman Clark, the founding artistic director of the company. “They're written by someone else telling our story.” 

Jessica Sporn, managing director, and Janeece Freeman Clark, founding artistic director of the Vanguard Theater Company. (Courtesy of the Vanguard Theater Company)
Jessica Sporn, managing director, and Janeece Freeman Clark, founding artistic director of the Vanguard Theater Company. (Courtesy of the Vanguard Theater Company)

Craig Williams, president of Jordan Brand, said of the grant recipients, “We believe that these community organizations aren’t just local change-makers, but that they are dreamers, makers of generational bonds and neighborhood leaders with an authentic understanding of how together they can create transformative change.” 

Founded in 2015, the Vanguard Theater Company aims to create art with the intention to change social and cultural narratives through theater. 

Clark is excited that the grant will allow the theater to continue to break down barriers. While many companies try to assert that they are “colorblind” while hiring, she instead believes in being “color conscious.” 

“One of our benchmarks is this idea of color-conscious casting… I actually think that's insulting to say colorblind casting, because we see color, it's actually the first thing that we see,”  Clark said. By following this rule of being color-conscious, she said that the theater has the freedom to do classic theater shows, but in a refreshing way. 

In November 2021, the theater staged “Next to Normal," which follows a middle-aged woman who is experiencing bipolar disorder while trying to raise her kids in a suburban community. The main character, Diana Goodman, was cast as a white woman in the Broadway production.

“So we took a spin on that and we cast the lead actor as a Black woman, and as we know, the stigma of mental health issues among Black people is very different than some other communities,” Clark said. 

Not only does the theater aim to highlight diversity onstage, it is dedicated to bridging the gap between the show on the stage and the community members who sit in the audience. After performances of “Next to Normal,” mental health advocates would hold “talk-backs” to discuss mental health resources with those at the show.  

Last year, during the November run of “The Spitfire Grill,” the production partnered with SAVE of Essex County and the Rachel Coalition to raise awareness about victims of domestic violence, as the musical dealt in part with the theme of abuse. 

Vanguard is accepting submissions from writers for the Illuminating New Voices Festival until March 31. To apply, visit