Entertainment » Theatre

Maurice Emmanuel Parent on Telling Stories from the Front Porch... Collective, That Is

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Dec 1, 2017

Maurice Emmanuel Parent is a longtime stalwart of the Boston theater scene, starring in (literally) dozens of productions by various companies -- everything from multiple roles with The Actors' Shakespeare Project (most recently in last season's acclaimed production of "Edward II") to appearances with Huntington Theatre Company ("A Raisin in the Sun," and this season's "Merrily We Roll Along") to SpeakEasy Stage's "The Scottsboro Boys," New Repertory Theatre's "RENT" (among many other credits with that company), "Shrek" at Wheelock Family Theater, roles in Underground Theatre Company's "The Mountaintop" and "The Convert"... and, of course, "Man of La Mancha," first with the Lyric Theater Company in 2007, and now, in 2017, the upcoming New Repertory Theatre production.

Parent is just as busy behind the scenes as he is on the stage, being a teacher of the theatrical arts and now, with the formation of The Front Porch Arts Collective, a co-founder of one of Boston's newest theater companies... a company dedicated to telling stories, as Parent tells EDGE in the interview that follows, that feature actors, writers, and other artists of color.

EDGE enjoyed a chat with Parent about The Front Porch Arts Collective, the links between the current political climate and the creative responses it has prompted, and New Rep's "Man of La Mancha."


EDGE: Tell me a little about The Front Porch Arts Collective.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Absolutely! The Lyric Stage produced 'Saturday Night/Sunday Morning' two years ago, a play with an all Black cast, directed Dawn M. Simmons and featuring Keith Mascoll. Afterwards, at the opening night party, at the bar with Manhattans in hand, I said to the two of them, 'It'd be nice if there was a theater that did this type of work year round,' and they both turned to me and said, 'That sounds like an idea for a company!'

I was doing 'The Convert' at the time, at Central Square Theater. In between rehearsals we would meet at CST to brainstorm and write down what we envisioned the company would be. We came up with a few things early on. We had the idea that it should be focused on the stories of the African Diaspora in an inclusive manner, bringing everybody from all races and creeds to the theater to see life from a black perspective, and at the same time we focus on increasing the number of people of color in audiences.

I went to Central Square Theater leadership and told them about this idea for a company. They responded by saying, 'We've been looking to incubate a project like this for years.' They became our artistic and fiscal sponsors. They were so kind -- they gave us office keys and said, 'Come in, use the space whenever you want.' Through their fiscal sponsorship we applied to and received a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation's last cycle, to do a reading series of the [work by] African American Playwright Marcus Gardley. We picked him because we feel he's a playwright that really exemplifies the type of work we want to explore and share with the public; he's the perfect person to introduce the company to people, to build an audience, and now eventually to be one of our first fully staged productions.

EDGE: Can you say a little about what is meant by the African Diaspora?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: We use that terminology [to mean] any group of people who connect their cultural lineage to having started in Africa. I mean, all [human] life started in Africa, but in the more immediate history of humanity certain groups claim Africa as their source of origin. By way of transatlantic slave trade and migration they were moved to other parts of the world.

We use that term in particular because we're not starting the company saying that white-led companies should not do stories that feature people of color. We're definitely not saying that. We're saying that we want to create a home, led by people of color, where that narrative can be explored in as many forms as possible, because once you start talking about the African Diaspora it's endlessly diverse -- and it's specifically diverse in a place like Boston, which is something I -- not being from here, but having been here for twelve years -- every day am astounded by.

The African Diaspora includes African Americans, Haitian Americans, Jamaican Americans, African immigrants, people from other Caribbean islands, etc. Then we start getting into the different regions of America -- black people who grew up the South, in the East, in the North, out west. I think there are so many narratives and perspectives that fall under the umbrella of 'The African Diaspora' that, to me, it seems like perfect fodder for a theater company.

Also, telling stories of the African Diaspora is not always doing a play that centers on our struggles. We are not only defined by struggle, we're also defined by achievements and by our endless talents and abilities. We want to create a place where, certainly, our struggles and accomplishments are honored, but also where we can explore all types of theatrical expression. A musical would be great; a comedy would be awesome. Maybe do a show from a Haitian-American perspective, or do a narrative that is rooted in some other islands' traditions. Or do a reimagined classic that's not traditionally done with black and brown bodies. What would it mean to do a historically white play, but with people of color? What would it highlight? I think that is a benefit to having a company that is specifically dedicated to those stories, because they can take any form. We want to create a home where Black stories are constantly explored.

EDGE: So really, this is a question of representation.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Absolutely. It's about representation of people of color onstage and off stage.

EDGE: Front Porch will be a welcome addition, and it seems as though there's more representation going on around Boston stages in recent seasons in general. Sleeping Weazel just brought '3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show' to town from New York; last season SpeakEasy Stage had a great success with 'The Scottsboro Boys,' which you were in, and it did so well the show came back for a short encore run; Company One has announced that they are doing a whole season devoted to stories from the African American perspective. It seems like consciousness for the need of representation is increasing.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: I agree, and I think the logical next step is to have a professional theater company that will focus on those narratives exclusively. As you think about most major theater towns in America, there is a professional Black theater company somewhere in the mix. We also want to create opportunities for union members as well -- to make sure we're increasing the opportunities for both union and non-union [artists of color].

EDGE: What you were saying about linking cultural tradition back to Africa is interesting, because there is so much of our culture does link back to Africa in ways we don't necessarily think about -- certainly in terms of American music, and also art, folklore, textiles... how might American theater reflect that heritage?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: There's a couple responses... the first one is the reading of the play we just did, 'Black Odyssey,' Marcus Gardley's version of the traditional Homer's 'Odyssey' but set in Harlem. It actually goes through the journey of the diaspora.

This man, Ulysses, is on a journey; it's actually a journey within -- he's returning from [military service in] Afghanistan, and he is going through his history and his legacy from Africa [as he travels] back home to his wife and child.

It's actually really related to that sentiment of cultural lineage coming from Africa, but I think when we [talk about] the African Diaspora, it gives room both for things that are Afrocentric-focused, but also things that are not. I think there's a lot of beauty and richness in cultures where the bloodlines start in Africa, but the immediate cultural ramifications are somewhere else. I like to think about black American culture: Black people in America started in Africa, were brought here forcibly, and through struggles and triumphs created the African American culture. The same thing happened with the people who where brought to the islands, and created cultures there.

Our shared African origin is a binding agent, it's the root of our company; knowing that these cultures started in Africa, what did they do being moved around the world? What elements of African Culture did they bring with them? What did they create in their new locations?

EDGE: The reading series you mentioned, featuring the work of Marcus Gardley, is titled "The God's Closet Reading Series." (The full list is available at the Front Porch Arts Collective website.) Four have been done so far, the most recent of which, 'Black Odyssey,' you just mentioned. Several more are coming up, with 'Every Tongue Confesses' scheduled for January. When you were selecting material for that reading series, how did you come to settle on doing work by Marcus Gardley?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: We picked Gardley because he is a dynamic black playwright whose work is not done much in the area who we knew we would eventually like to produce. We used the reading series to introduce his work to audiences while simultaneously building an audience for The Porch. He's being produced all over, and now he's writing for TV. Our hope is that the people who enjoyed the reading series will come and buy a ticket for the fully staged version.

Personally, I'm in awe of his work. He takes this vernacular -- this African American vernacular from different regions, from New York to the South, and adds this element of magical realism so it's both relatable and sublime.

EDGE: It sounds like the readings are intended to lead the way to a fully staged production, which would be wonderful to see. Is such a production already on the drawing board?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Yes, Central Square Theater has agreed to co-produce a production of 'Black Odyssey' with us in 2019. We're really excited!

EDGE: I think it's an interesting resonance that 'Black Odyssey' takes the theme it does, when you look back at Derek Wolcott, the Nobel Prize winner who was the author of the modern epic poem 'Omeros,' which riffed on 'The Odyssey,' and he also was the founder of Boston Playwrights' Theatre.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Thank you for bringing up Derek Wolcott. The Porch always wants to acknowledge that we are not the first or only artists of color working to celebrate and elevate Black Art. [Front Porch follows] Derek Wolcott, Barbara Lewis, Ed Bullins, Akiba Abaka, James Spruill, Jacqui Parker -- to name a few. We realize that we are part of an important legacy in Boston. I think the beauty of Boston is the people of color are so diverse, and there's a rich history of artists from these communities who have and continue to create Black Art. As we endeavor to create an artistic home we want to respect to that History.

EDGE: We are living in a very challenging and, frankly, scary times right now, but there's a hope out there that getting through these times may open the way to greater inclusiveness, more appreciation for diversity, a larger conversation, and perhaps a more complete understanding.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: I hope to God it does! It's kind of one of those things where - I mean, the horrible things you hear on the news every day about what is going on with this nation... I mean, I'm at a loss for words, I am so emotional about it.

I've found solace in planning this company, this dream of ours we've been working on for almost two years. Determining the type of art we want to create. Creating more opportunities for people of color to share their talents on a regular basis, endeavoring to make art that's available to all people and simultaneously coming up with strategies to increase the representation of people of color in theatre audiences, keeps me going. We need the arts to hold a mirror up to humanity and show us what we are as a society; and also what we are capable of. In such divisive times, art is a crucial tool to encourage collaboration and understanding.

I mean, no city is perfect; Boston has it's history of racial divisions and frictions, but I feel most people, from our elected officials to everyday folks, are committed to trying to change that pattern and are making major strides at doing so. I see it, I feel it. I think it's a perfect time to start The Porch.

EDGE: You are cast in the upcoming production of 'Man of La Mancha' at the New Repertory Theatre -- would you say a few words about that production and your part in it?

Maurice Emmanuel Parent: Thanks for asking. New Rep holds a special place in my heart. It's the first theatre that hired me to work in the Greater Boston area. It's where I got my Equity card, so coming back to it at a time when I'm working to establish a new company seems very appropriate, especially playing a dream role of mine.

The process has been challenging, reward, inspiration and ever evolving. This is not your traditional 'Man of La Mancha'...If audiences come with an open mind, I think they will leave having had a profound theatre experience.

Ultimately, Cervantes is the consummate theater artist. In the middle of being imprisoned, on the verge of being tortured or killed, he decides to put on a play with the 'thieves and murders' he's imprisoned with. It inspires me personally to work at being a better theatre artist as I, along with my beloved collaborators, embark on the 'Impossible Dream' that is The Front Porch Arts Collective!


For more information on The Front Porch Arts Collective, please go to http://www.frontporcharts.org/about.html

For more information on New Rep's upcoming production of "Man of La Mancha," running Dec. 1 - 24, please go to http://www.newrep.org/productions/man-la-mancha

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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