Abrons Arts Center doesn’t shy away from presenting work that deals with sensitive subjects. It’s part of the organization’s mission to address issues, like racial inequity and the legacy of colonialism, that affect the communities surrounding it on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. In the coming season, announced on Friday, audiences will be invited to confront something particularly taboo: blackface.
In September, Abrons will host the world premiere of Joshua William Gelb and Nehemiah Luckett’s “Jazz Singer,” an experimental reinterpretation of “The Jazz Singer,” a film from 1927 that features Al Jolson as a Jewish character who performs in blackface. This musical adaptation and interrogation of the film has been in the works for almost three years, said Craig Peterson, the artistic director at Abrons. “Josh and Nehemiah were very fascinated by that film, both because of its content but also because of the back story of the film being about a Jewish guy who lives on the Lower East Side,” he said in an interview.
[Read about the history of blackface in American culture.]
Staging something like “Jazz Singer,” which is set to run Sept. 24 through Oct. 12, is not without risk. “We were a little nervous, I’m not going to lie,” Mr. Peterson said. But, he added, “We do a lot of work with the artists to make sure we’re reducing the risk of potential injuries in terms inviting an audience in to witness something that could potentially could trigger somebody.”
The center will continue the conversation on race into 2020 with “Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed,” a dance-theater piece by David Neumann and Marcella Murray. The work stages a dialogue on the set of a TV talk show that poses questions about how black and white people discuss race with each other. “Distances” is scheduled for Jan. 16-25.
The season will also include “El Pueblo de los Olvidados (The Village of the Forgotten),” a science-fictional take on Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria choreographed and performed by Antonio Ramos (April 23-25, 2020) and “M _ _ _ ER – M _ _ _ ER,” a solo theatrical work by Autumn Knight about “mother,” “murder” and “matter” (March 26-28, 2020).
The full lineup can be found at abronsartscenter.org.