Black Theatre Troupe founder Jean-Remy Monnay looks back on accomplishments, forward to new challenges
For more than 20 years Jean-Remy Monnay has been acting on Capital Region stages, serving many companies who wish to have more diversity in their productions.
More than 10 years ago he formed a theater company to encourage, train and support actors of color who wanted to participate in Capital Region theater. Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY has been the resident community company at theREP’s new building on North Pearl Street since it opened the doors of its new home. BTTUNY performs in a black-box space called the Lauren and Harold Iselin Performing Arts Studio on the second floor, and once a year takes over the main stage of the Equity House.
This month, Monnay’s company has been named a beneficiary of the Albany Chefs Wine & Dine for the Arts Festival, which donates all net income to deserving nonprofit arts organizations. Monnay was also named the recipient of the Larry Murray Award for Community Outreach at the Berkshire Theatre Critics Association Awards Ceremony.
While there’s an enormous amount to be grateful for in Capital Region theater, no one represents what we should be most grateful for — a growing diversity onstage and off — better than Monnay. He can be found nearly every night of the year in a rehearsal room, onstage dancing through one of his curtain speeches or in the seats of a local playhouse, tirelessly sharing his time, energy and talent to lift all the theater he comes in contact with.
QUESTION: Now that you’ve had a week to think about it, what’s your reaction to winning the “Berkie” (Berkshire Theater Critics Association’s Larry Murray Award for Community Outreach and Support)?
ANSWER: When I got the call from Peter [Bergman, president of the Berkshire Theater Critics Association] I didn’t know people were nominating me; he didn’t tell me that I won. When I attended the ceremony they announced all the nominees and they still didn’t announce who won it. They called Roseann Cane up to present the award. Roseann started talking about when she met me when I did “The Boys Next Door” at Ghent Playhouse in 2008. I was crying before I even got to the podium.
It was such a great moment … from where I came from to be sitting in a room filled with these people. I was sitting in the last seat in the back. I started running towards the podium, and everybody was clapping and cheering. I thought I was dreaming.
Q: You closed “Clyde’s” by Lynn Nottage at the University at Albany over the weekend and it wasn’t long ago that “Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau closed at theREP. What’s the biggest challenge to having multiple projects going on nearly simultaneously?
A: The challenge is when you are working with new directors at BTTUNY. You don’t know the director well enough and you still have to be there to assist them and make sure everything is OK. At the same time, I have to make some money. I have to spread the love and spread the diversity by going to colleges as a guest director. It’s not something I can say, not because they’re trying to do what I’m doing. I have to find a way to make it happen. It’s not just me directing; it’s a bridge connecting the college to the community.
Q: You’ve recently announced that “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall is going to be your Black History Month show on theREP’s mainstage. Can you tell us why you’re doing this show again?
A: You can never stop talking about our great leaders of the past, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. We have a new generation and they need to hear these stories. We have to remember our past. People say, “Move on,” but we have. There would be no Obama without Martin Luther King.
I directed this show for Confetti Stage for three performances just before COVID shut everything down. We thought we could do a lot more with a bigger stage. This year, for Black History Month, we thought, “We have enough actors to do any show we want. We can do a play with a cast of two or a cast of 10.” We did it previously with Angelique Powell and Iniabasi Nelson, and we’re bringing them back. We’re bringing in a new director to BTTUNY, Michael Lake, so that’s why we’re bringing it back.
Q: What do you see specifically in Capital Region theater as an opportunity for growth?
A: There is so much I can say here [chuckles]. People say, “Where do you find your actors? We put notices out for actors of color, and nobody shows up.” This is still new for us. You have to make diversity a priority and more than directing them, you need to also be a teacher and a big brother and make them feel part of the family, educate them. Talk to them, find out what’s going on in their life. Make them feel welcome so they can come back.
Q: What is a play that you would love to produce, direct or act in?
A: I love telling our stories. There is a play that I’ve been working on. It’s called “Greenwood: An American Dream Destroyed” by Celeste Walker. It tells about the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m working with the playwright and I don’t know when, but I’m hoping to make it happen.
I know you only asked me for one, but another one I would love to do is “Once on This Island.” It’s Haiti! It’s a popular play, a musical, and I would love to do this.
For tickets to Albany Wine & Dine for the Arts from Jan. 25-27, visit albanywinefest.com.
For tickets to “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall running Feb. 1-11, visit blacktheatre
Patrick White is a Nippertown contributor.