Vanguard is D.R.E.A.M.ing of diversity
Saturday, Nov. 9, 7 p.m.
Honoring Covenant House NJ, Doreen Oliver, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and The Actors Fund
Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Ave.
By GWEN OREL
Guests at Vanguard Theater Company’s gala, “A Night Under the Stars,” on Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Montclair Art Museum, won’t just see excerpts from shows that the youth theater has presented in the past season when they watch the performances.
They will also see a company that has “beautiful chemistry as an ensemble, showing their empathy as human beings,” says VTC’s artistic director and co-founder, Janeece Freeman Clark.
“Onstage, people will see a diverse group of young people,” Freeman Clark continued. “Diversity for us happens in a lot of different areas. It’s socioeconomic diversity, religious
diversity, cultural diversity, gender and ethnic diversity. Out audiences also represent this.”
Vanguard Theater Company’s mission is D.R.E.A.M.: Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Awareness and Mentorship.
Community, and work with community partners, is central to the organization, Freeman Clark explains. The goal of the company is not just to produce performances, but to use theater to connect to social issues.
VTC is a fairly new company; it was founded in 2015. In that short time, hundreds of young people have performed with VTC in shows that move to Off-Broadway and tour, and have attended Summer Stock Sleepaway Camp. And they have already been awarded grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and are also supported by TeeRico, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s company, among others.
The gala honors some of VTC’s community partners as well as individuals who inspire them.
While the gala, like most galas hosted by nonprofit organizations, has high-price tickets and is intended to raise funds, its purpose is also, according to a release from the company, “to draw attention to the intersection of art and awareness, diversity and dialogue, and celebrate the local organizations and people making a difference in our communities.”
VTC worked with Covenant House NJ, whose mission is to keep homeless youth off the streets, on its production of Liz Swados’ “Runaways” last year. Cast members had a day of immersion at the house, looking at photographs; cellist Jessie Edwards, formerly homeless, and helped by Covenant House, performed with them. VTC held a sleepout in solidarity with homeless youth throughout the country, which raised $2,500.
The Actors Fund is being honored, Freeman Clark said, because it sponsors the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, a home for retired actors, and VTC performers visit every year.
“It’s one of those great opportunities for our young kids to give back performing for people who’ve done this well before they were even thought of, and spend time communing with them. They tell us stories they learned from residents, and look forward to going back,” she said.
VTC worked with playwright/performer Doreen Oliver last year on her piece about having a son with autism, and the issues of access to services as a woman of color. VTC presented the show at Montclair Film, where Oliver was also on a panel, Freeman Clark said.
Finally, Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a Harvard professor who writes a lot about the racial divide in America, she said. “Authors and speakers such as Khalil, who give a voice to artists to be able to explore these topics in greater detail, use their art to become social activists.”
And ultimately, that, for her, is what VTC is about.
Broadway Buddies, a mentorship program that pairs about 30 up-and-coming performers with 30 Broadway performers, some of whom are now VTC alumni, is part of the organization’s ongoing educational project. Right now the shows are audition-based, but when the organization has a homebase building — one of the goals of the gala — they will be able to increase their year-round classes and workshops, and help people transition into becoming professionals, she said.
“We’re not a typical theater company that only produces theater,” Freeman Clark continued. “We always find something about the theater we’re producing that resonates with us in a deeper way. We use our art and gifts to make a difference in the world we live in. For a lot of young artists, that is their biggest takeaway. They go on, and even if they don’t have a professional career in musical theater, they continue to use their art as a platform to make a difference.”