The Garden Valley neighborhood has a great new gem in the form of an intimate theater located in Garden Valley Neighborhood House.
New African Theater has already performed two pieces to great acclaim. The first piece was “Meat” written by Mary Weems about the Sowell murders, and this past week, to a sold-out crowd, August Wilson’s “Jitney” was performed.
The theater is the brainchild of Michael Oatman, former playwright-in-residence at Karamu House. Oatman held that position for several years, the only person to be honored with the title since the venerable Langston Hughes. I interviewed him in a question-and-answer format hoping to allow readers to understand how important the theater is to the neighborhood and to Oatman.
Ingram: Why did you open the theater especially in the Garden Valley area?
Oatman: I always dreamed of having my own theater. After meeting Jan Ridgeway (the executive director of Garden Valley Neighborhood House), we decided to bring arts-related programming to Garden Valley because many people there have never had a chance to see live theater. Because of this, everyone is welcome at the New African Theater. We charge $10 for a ticket, but no one is turned away, so the entire neighborhood shows up.
Ingram: Do you have a large audience for your shows?
Oatman: Oh yes. We had to find extra chairs to find places for people to sit. We were filled to capacity each day for “Meat” and for “Jitney.”
Ingram: Garden Valley is very receptive, then, to live theater?
Oatman: Yes, they are. The Neighborhood House has always had food banks. They feed the bellies and we feed the soul. We are open to outreach to the community, too. If schools or churches want us to perform, we will travel and perform in any other venue.
Ingram: So youth groups or churches can ask for what types of services?
Oatman: We do writing workshops. We can custom make plays about subject matter that is important to a church or community group. We do storytelling for children and all for affordable prices.
Ingram: What about local businesses? Do you have anything to offer them?
Oatman: Yes, we can do fundraisers and touring productions — especially if the business is honoring someone or focusing on a social problem like an illness like heart disease. We can make a production that is evidence based. We opened “Jitney” with a 10-minute sketch that was about male breast cancer awareness in the African-American community.
Ingram: Well, in Neighbor Up (a diverse group of people working to change in Cleveland), we do a practice called the marketplace and I want you and I to do the first newspaper marketplace in Neighborhood Voice. In the marketplace, we ask people for one of three things: ask for help, offer a service or make a declaration about something they are determined to accomplish. Since this is a newspaper marketplace, I am going to ask you to do all three. First, what kind of help do you need from the community?
Oatman: We need lights, we need two light trees and tracks. We need a light board and cord for theater lighting. We need six blackout curtains for the windows and rods to hang them. We have been renting chairs, so we need chairs. We need roadies, people that will help us set up and move sets. And we need an experienced administrative manger, maybe a senior who knows how to call around and get things done.
Ingram: What gift do you have to share with the readers and the community?
Oatman: We will give free teen bootcamps in writing and acting. We will do outreach in schools. We will do customized programming for businesses. We will give cheap rental space for other engagements, perhaps if a stage is needed for open mic poetry reading, as long as the project is community based. And, new play writers can have a 10-minute opening spot to perform before larger shows.
Ingram: What is your declaration?
Oatman: Not having is not an excuse for not doing and come rain, sleet or snow. New African Theater is gonna make it do what it do, baby.
Ingram: Do I spell theater with an r-e like theatre?
Oatman: Not yet. We can’t afford the r-e so just good, old plain theater, t-h-e-a-t-e-r, will have to do.
Lori Ingram is an actress living in University Circle.