Shakespeare With an Inner-city Edge

November 30, 2007
Staging the street: scene from Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death

Staging the street: scene from Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death. Mike Messer

Calling the Classical Theatre of Harlem a "giant-killer of a company," a reviewer for The New York Times praised the troupe's proclivity for "locating the most challenging works in the canon and knocking them off as if with a slingshot."

For two weeks in November, the theater company brought its ambitious mission to the Duke and Durham communities, with master classes and community outreach programs by day, and edgy stage presentations at night. The two-week residency included a gritty, modern-day interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, set in Harlem, and a revival of Melvin Van Peebles' Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death, a scorching social commentary about ghetto life.

John Clum, chair of the theater studies department, says that the Classical Theatre of Harlem's residency exemplified the kind of multifaceted value—intellectual, social, and artistic—that the performing arts can bring to campus. The Van Peebles play, for example, includes racially and politically charged musical monologues that are as culturally relevant today as they were when the musical debuted in the early 1970s. In addition to working with Duke students, the theater company collaborated with Durham's Walltown Children's Theater, the Durham School of the Arts, and North Carolina Central University. The residency and performances were sponsored by Duke Performances as part of its 2007-08 season.