Conscience Effort

Conscience Effort

The term “collective consciousness” is both a mouthful and a brainful—and established enough to get an entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Problems: “shared, intersubjective understanding of common norms and values among a group of people.” But it fits the work being done in a small theater with big ideas in Erector Square.

Now preparing its third show of the 2018-19 season, Collective Consciousness Theatre stages theatrical productions with a shared consciousness and a shared conscience focused on issues of race, class and culture. Associate director Jenny Nelson thinks that trio of issues is still underrepresented in theater. “I think a lot of people like to talk about it, but not a lot of people like to actually do it, and I think we’re one of the few companies that’s really bringing it forth.” Artistic director Dexter Singleton says CCT’s “shoestring budget” helps it stay audacious. “We can take much bigger risks… that maybe , because of their subscribers, just can’t…”

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Those risks have often paid off. Back in 2014, CCT mounted the third-ever production of Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit ’67, set during the race riots of that place and time. Morisseau later became a 2018 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and is “the hottest playwright in the country,” Singleton says. He and Nelson name several other playwrights they’ve produced who they believe are going places: Dave Harris, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Idris Goodwin. “A lot of the plays now, we see, are popping up other places, so we’re trying to stay a step ahead,” Nelson says.

When CCT cast and crew showed up for rehearsal on a recent Tuesday evening, many of them were coming from day jobs but ready to work for three more hours. Their production of The Royale, written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Nelson, opens March 28 and runs through April 14. Set in 1905, the dramatized account of a real-life fight between the black boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson and his white opponent, Jim Jeffries, was marketed as the “fight of the century.” As soon as she read the script, Nelson recalls, “I just said we have to do this play.”

The Collective Consciousness theater itself, located in a second-floor studio in Erector Square, is akin to an off-off Broadway house. Wood risers hold 53 padded folding chairs facing a small stage area on the floor below. A narrow hallway to the side serves as backstage. When I arrived, costume designer Carol Koumbaros was trying out a petticoat with actor Tamika Pettway while other actors ran lines and conversed. Choreographer Michelle Burns worked with Chris Bethune, in the lead role of Jay Jackson. “This is an abstracted view of boxing, and so people don’t really throw a punch,” Nelson explains. “This will be practically a bare stage, and the actors will create the world.”

“This is definitely a start/stop working rehearsal,” she told the cast as they gathered to begin. Singleton, who’s often on the road doing work in other cities, welcomed everyone. “We’ve been so blessed this year to get three productions with just so much experience on the stage,” he said.

“Let’s take a swing at this and see what we do,” Nelson said, pun unintended, and rehearsal unfolded as promised, starting and stopping as the actors worked through their lines, their blocking and a tricky series of claps that punctuate some of the language.

This is CCT’s fifth season and the first with three full-scale productions. Singleton directed Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train last fall, “a darkly comic meditation on redemption and faith” in which a “bicycle messenger awaiting trial for the death of the leader of a religious cult.” That was followed by Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, a “tense workplace thriller” in which “two co-workers are driven apart by their racialized assumptions,” directed by Elizabeth Nearing.

Founded in 2007, CCT was originally a collective of artists, including Singleton, who were independently touring the East Coast, bringing theater programs to schools and communities. “We all came together as a collective… just as support for one another,” he explains. The group went on to develop several touring programs of its own, including, most recently, Stories of a New America, a piece built with the help of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) from interviews with more than 100 refugees.

The group still does educational programs, but its own theater “has become our primary focus,” Nelson says. In addition to its main productions, last year it hosted Freshworks, a festival of “brand new American plays and curated conversations.” 150 scripts were submitted, and three were chosen for staged readings and a cash prize. They plan to run the festival again in 2020.

In line with its mission, Collective Consciousness aims to make theater less “elitist” and more affordable, with a “pay what you can” model every Thursday and $10 student tickets. As a result, Singleton thinks, they draw the “most diverse audience of any companies locally” in terms of age, race, socioeconomic status and cultural background. That diversity “makes for a much more lively discussion” after the performances, he says—a staple of CCT’s productions.

That “lively discussion” is evident even as Singleton and Nelson talk about their projects—finishing one another’s sentences, affirming one another’s thoughts, talking in tandem, as if they’re spinning out the theater’s mission of shared concerns as they speak. That shared mission not only binds the theatre’s actors, playwrights, directors, crew and supporters together. It also draws in an audience. People “gravitate” to them, Nelson says.

Sometimes, she adds, the theater even finds itself out in front of what’s happening in the world—not reflecting it, but watching it catch up with them in the play they’re already producing.

Collective Consciousness Theatre presents The Royale
Erector Square – 319 Peck St, Bldg 6S, New Haven (map)
Thurs-Sat 8pm (March 28-April 13); Sun 3pm (April 14)
Website | The Royale

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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