SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — This Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, South Orange Middle School in partnership with the Vanguard Theater Company will host a community event celebrating the life of pioneering musician Ray Charles with the musical production “A Portrait of Ray,” which will feature Broadway star and South Orange resident Dwayne Clark.
Clark currently stars on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” and has previously appeared in “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark,” “In the Heights,” “Rent” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
The performance will be held at South Orange Middle School, 70 N. Ridgewood Road, on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 17, at 3 p.m., and will mark the first of what the company hopes to be many community co-productions.
The production will also feature the sounds of world-class musician and South Orange resident Don Braden as he portrays a member of Charles’ band in the show.
In a recent interview with the News-Record, Daryl Stewart, co-artistic director for the Vanguard Theater Company, discussed his vision for the growing nonprofit organization.
“Both (fellow co-artistic director) Janeece Freeman-Clark and I have been professional actors and directors for some time now, and we started to collaborate consistently a few years ago,” Stewart said. “We have also been professional partners for a while, and we noticed that we saw a lack of diversity in the New Jersey theater scene, and there were only sprinkles of diversity on the stage.”
Stewart says the two decided to build a theater company dedicated to community engagement, diversity and professional development, which they believe are paramount to true success.
“We also wanted to bridge the gap between young artists and seasoned professionals,” he said. “Many times when you go to see theater, you either see people just starting out or someone really good. You don’t see anyone in between, and we want to create a space for that, a space for people that might have only performed professionally a few times but are still learning their craft and looking for a place to do so.”
“A Portrait of Ray” was initially produced as Vanguard Theater Company’s first gala fundraiser. Both the show and its accompanying fundraiser last June were a success and the company decided to put it away. They next did a successful production of “Hairspray” and put that show away as well.
But that was not the last they would see of their first production.
According to Stewart, South Orange Middle School Principal Lynn Irby, who also serves on the board for the Vanguard Theater Company, discussed with them the challenges with diversity that exist in the South Orange and Maplewood area and asked them to consider bringing the production to the community.
Stewart said Irby spoke to the school district about the idea, and the district agreed to sponsor the show. The show is being presented through a special community partnership with the MLK Clubs of South Orange and Maplewood Schools.
Irby has long been an advocate of the arts, and has made it one of the focal points of her administration to highlight the arts and expose her students to all forms of art.
The event will also feature the presentation of two “modern-day hero” Vanguard Visionary awards: the Humanitarian Award to Bishop Donald Hilliard and the Civil Rights Award to Junius W. Williams. Hilliard is the senior pastor of Cathedral International, and an artist; Williams is an attorney, musician and veteran civil rights activist.
Stewart also spoke about the significance of presenting a show about Ray Charles during a weekend that is dedicated to another well-known figure in history.
“Ray Charles was a monumental artist, but he also embodied equality and tolerance and that’s what we wanted to bring to the community,” he said. “We’re really excited to bring the community together with such an important day and weekend.
“Martin Luther King Jr. weekend is often overlooked as a weekend for vacation, to clean the house and a free weekend to do other things. Because of the climate in our country, in our state, in our communities, we wanted to bring a different option,” Stewart said. “The show and Ray’s life speak about disability, equality and civil rights.”
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend event will also host an art exhibition showcasing the top 10 finalists of the Vanguard’s Vision of Equality Art Competition. This competition, open to all high school-aged artists in the greater New Jersey area, invited artists to submit original pieces on the topic of “Civil Rights.” The exhibition aims to showcase varying perspectives on civil rights equality of the past, present and future. Cash prizes will be awarded to the winners.
“We wanted to present this as another option to engage and be a part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy,” Stewart said. “We could have picked February during Black History Month, or some other equally important time, but we thought that there is no better time than now to honor his legacy with this unique work.”
For more information, visit www.vanguardtheater.org.