“Admit you’re a racist!’ a young black woman clad in a hoodie shouts at an older white woman who is dressed in a professional jacket and khaki pants. The pair clash scrambling for the iPhone that has been recording the encounter. From off in the periphery Jean-Remy Monnay founder of the Black Theatre Troupe of New York watches in silence.
The actresses, Monet Thompson as Zoe the student and Christina Reeves as Janine the professor are about a week away from debuting “The Niceties.” Written by Eleanor Burgess the play sees a young black student defend her thesis that the American Revolution did not lead to a secondary revolution based on economic discontent because white people benefited from slavery to a professor who hasn’t bothered to look outside her own struggles.
As the debate rages the characters reveal more about themselves only to return to their hardened positions and views of the American experience. Set in 2016 the play feels almost…too soon in that in paints a picture of the “OK Boomer” dichotomy of 2019, before the term took off as a meme.
The rehearsal comes suddenly to a halt as the tension hits its peak. “They haven’t asked for lines once,” Monnay says quietly after offering everyone drinks, and snacks. “I’ve been in productions at this point where everyone is still reading. The first act has come off without a hitch the visceral intensity in the air fades as Monnay encourages everyone to stretch or take a walk.
For ten years Monnay has run a theater troupe designed to give non-white actors a chance to practice their craft. Founded in 2009 as the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe Monnay has grown his audience, found a home at Sienna and retired from his full-time job at the state. Now known as Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY the group has a reputation for staging culturally important works while providing a comforting and supportive environment for its actors and crew.
Monnay got his start in community theater in his native Haiti at the age of 9. He later made his way to America and lived for a while in New York City. He was told his accent would get in the way of acting but when he relocated upstate he decided to test that assumption and attended Schenectady County Community College to study performing arts.
Over the years he’s been recognized for maintaining the troupe and offering actors of all experience levels a way to do what they love.
“Remy is very kind,” said Reeves. “He had me in mind for this part and after reading it I wasn’t quite sure. But he was very thoughtful and open about it. He’s always hyper-aware of not offending me. He’s always mindful of everyone’s feelings.”
Reeves says that she still harbors some trepidation about her role as a liberal history professor who rejects her black students assertions about being black in America and how the system should acknowledge and try to rectify horrendous historical injustices.
“Honestly it’s tiresome to do this every night. It’s emotionally exhausting. Some lines I wasn’t sure I really wanted to say. I thought if I say this I’m going to be enemy number one in the theater every night. Some of the things the character says are ignorant and hurtful,” but she says she’s been assured by her castmate and Monnay that it is a powerful piece.
“The Niceties” is a particularly appropriate piece for Monnay to direct as it details the hardening of view points, the rejection of empathy and the conviction that compromise is in itself bad. And its apparent from spending one night at rehearsal that those are not traits Monnay himself carries as a director.
“Working with Remy is much more collaborative than with some directors, says Reeves. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing but some directors have their vision and that’s what they want. They aren’t open to other ideas, but that isn’t Remy.”
The Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York has a busy 2020 planned. “The Niceties” runs Jan 23-25 at 8 PM and the 26th at 3 PM at Siena College’s Foy Hall.
“The Meeting” a play about an imaginary summit between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in a Harlem hotel room in 1965 will be performed on February 7 at The Armory at Sage College at 6:30 PM. “Camp Logan” the story of an all-black Army platoon that marched on Houston in response to incidents of police brutality and the riot that followed will run from April 2 to 11 at an as of yet unannounced location.