Theater Feature: JAG Productions — Establishing Black Theater in Vermont
JAG Productions’ goal is to stage plays that reflect the lives of African-Americans — in Vermont, the second-whitest state in the nation.
By Susan B. Apel
JAG Productions is a new theater company that describes its mission as providing “bold theatre that reflects the times.” “Bold” describes not only the work, but the nervy vision of the company’s founder and producing artistic director, Jarvis Antonio Green. His goal is to stage plays that reflect the lives of African-Americans; that means presenting some well known scripts, such as those by acclaimed playwright August Wilson, and others that are new —to Vermont, the second-whitest state in the nation.
Now 35 years old, Green is a veteran of the theater and of New England. As an actor and director he has lived and worked in the Upper Connecticut River Valley and in other parts of the United States, most recently serving as the Director of Theater Arts at ArtisTree Community Arts Center just outside of Woodstock, Vermont. His experience in, and familiarity with, Vermont theater convinced him that Vermont was the place to hatch JAG Productions. He believes that local audiences are passionate about theater and open to hearing new stories.
Green launched JAG Productions in the fall of 2016, with a staging of Choir Boy, a coming-of-age tale set in a prep school for young African-American men, written by MacArthur “Genius” (and eventual Academy-award winner for best adapted screenplay for the film Moonlight) Tarell Alvin McCraney. Green assembled a cast of professional actors, rented a recently-empty theater in White River Junction, VT and began rehearsals in whatever community spaces he could find. JAG’s debut was a box office success. The company also performed for 300 local students at free matinees. Green was particularly touched by letters he received from the young people, who thanked him for “being let in on this (the play’s) culture.” The response reinforced his intuition that Vermont was a place where JAG Productions would flourish.
Following Choir Boy came JAG Fest, a weekend of staged readings of two plays, Harrison David Rivers’ Sweet and Lydia Diamond’s Smart People, with director talk-backs and lectures on the state of black theater woven throughout the presentations. The fest concluded with a production of Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical. Admission to all events was free.
Together, Choir Boy and JAG Fest generated the hoped-for buzz. Green announced his next project—a production of August Wilson’s Fences at Woodstock Town Hall Theater, right on the heels of the release of the film with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The production received praise from local critics.
Fences solidified JAG’s unshakable commitment to the work of playwright August Wilson. According to the company’s marketing associate, Alexa Smith, JAG’s artistic plan for years to come is to produce all of Wilson’s plays—the American Century Cycle—at the rate of one per season. JAG intends to build a company of experienced actors around its Fences cast. The idea is that Wilson’s rich and epic dramatic achievement, like Shakespeare’s, merits the establishment of a theater company that specializes in his work.
For the near future, JAG’s sophomore year will likely resemble its inaugural one, with another round of JAG Fest in the winter and the staging of a Wilson play in the spring of 2018. JAG has an eye on other theatrical possibilities as well, which might include an American musical with non-traditional casting.
The immediate business plan includes establishing a Board of Directors and obtaining 501(c)(3) status. Smith says that the company’s first season proved that “people believe in the vision” and are interested in assisting the company’s growth. At the moment, JAG is based in Woodstock, Vermont, but has made use of other performing venues within a near-radius. There are plans to stage productions elsewhere in Vermont. For example, the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, Vermont—one of the oldest and largest family farms owned by African-Americans in the state—is transitioning into a cultural center that may collaborate and provide performance space for one of JAG’s productions.
When asked how the first year has gone, staging African-American stories in homogenous Vermont, Smith was enthusiastic about the public reception. She was particularly optimistic about the lively participation in the talk-backs, which featured open, if occasionally awkward, give-and-takes. The biggest challenge is less about the material than the obstacles of presenting theater in a small town. Green says one of the surprises of JAG’s first year was “the amount of outreach and collaboration it took to get people through the door.” That task is far from over. Regardless of the company members’ enthusiasm, densely populated cities boast the most potential theatergoers. It is harder to cultivate audiences from a swath of small, scattered, and rural Vermont towns.
Green sees the first year as one “full of trials and errors and explorations and investigations, which I think resulted in productive and rewarding art.” The quest has begun — a pioneering effort to establish black theater in Vermont.
Susan B. Apel is a writer and law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, Rhizomes, The Vignette Review, Woven Tale Press, Bloodroot, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly on the dailyUV.com. She is also a contributor to the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.