An all-star, African-American cast, directed by Shakespeare specialist Rob Clare, is performing a staged reading of "King Lear" as a benefit for Luna Stage Theater Company in the Valley Arts District of West Orange. The production will run for two evenings only, Saturday, Jan. 7 and Sunday, Jan. 8.
National performers Andre Braugher, Ami Brabson, Suzzanne Douglas and Frankie Faison will be coming home as part of the Luna Stage family.
Faison, of Montclair, will play Lear and is married to Luna's founder and artistic director, Jane Mandel. He has performed through the years at Luna and serves as vice president on the 19-year-old theater company's board of directors.
South Orange's husband and wife Braugher and Brabson, play the Duke of Gloucester and Lear's daughter Regan respectively.
Maplewood's Douglas plays Goneril, the other ambitious sister.
Mandel talked about the actors' Luna connections, "Andre Braugher has done a reading for us, and both he and his wife Ami are supporters and friends of Luna." She added, "Ami was in our wonderful production of 'The Old Settler' along with Suzzanne." (The actresses also played sisters in "The Old Settler," Luna's first regular full season production at their new purpose built theater on Valley Road.)
If the performers' names sound familiar to you, they should. Faison has played in many films, is well known for his work in television's "The Wire" and had Tony and Drama Desk nominations for best supporting actor in August Wilson's "Fences."
Braugher has Emmy awards for "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "Thief," and has a sixth Emmy nomination this year for the TNT series "Men of a Certain Age." His New York City Shakespeare performances include an Obie award for the 1996 Shakespeare in the Park production of "Henry V," and roles in "Hamlet," ‘The Tragedy of Richard II," "Measure for Measure," and "Twelfth Night."
Douglas, a winner of the NAACP Image award, is known for her roles in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," and television's "The Parent Hood." Brabson has performed Shakespeare in regional theater and has had recurring roles on television shows including "Law and Order."
Douglas brought the idea of an all African-American reading to Luna. "This director and cast want to investigate this classic through an African American lens, tapping into a common bond, history and language," Mandel said.
Clare, an internationally renowned director, has nothing but praise for the bard's great dramatic tragedy.
"Its vivid immediacy is by turns, alarming, moving, funny, passionate, philosophical, terrifying, and ultimately heart-breaking," he said. "It is in places beautifully poetic, in others brutally direct. It is a story of family conflicts, of divided fathers and children, that is also a political and military thriller, played out on an epic scale."
Clare, currently in New York City directing other Shakespeare productions and a Shakespeare program at New York University Graduate School of Acting, talked about directing and staging a reading. "Staging a reading rather than a full production simplifies some things, and makes others more challenging," Clare said. "But firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it puts a primary emphasis and concentrates one's attention onto the text of this great play, which I personally consider to be the pinnacle of Shakespeare's colossal achievement, and to show him at the absolute height of his powers as a writer."
As to her husband playing Lear, Mandel said, "Frankie was in the Public Theatre's production of 'King Lear' with James Earl Jones in the title role. That was many years ago in Central Park — a wonderful production," Mandel said. "He has wanted to play 'Lear' ever since then — or maybe forever in his heart."
Learn more about Luna Stage's regular season productions, other cultural events and extensive community outreach by visiting Luna Stage. Other cast members are John Douglass Thompson, Ty Jones, Reg E. Cathey Brandon O'Neil Scott, Chad Coleman, Peter J. Fernandez and Nehassaiu deGannes as Cordelia.
Benefit performances are Saturday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 8 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $100; $125 with a post performance meet the actors reception. Luna Stage is located at 555 Valley Road, West Orange, call (973) 395-5551. The theatre is handicapped accessible and assisted listening devices are available.