Freedome Bradley And SummerStage’s Hidden Treasures

An outstanding feature of Freedome’s productions is the ability to take classical pieces and not only reduce them in length and performers, but to contemporize by the use of costumes and settings, so that the target audience can readily identify and relate to the production.
By Carolyn Jenkins

Freedome Bradley joined City Parks Foundation in 2006, after leaving his independent producer position with Urban Pop, a festival that creates and cultivates new urban American theater – similar to what he now does at SummerStage.

As a youngster, Freedome loved storytelling. During his teen years, he was greatly inspired by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s play, Starlight Express.  He was so impressed by this production, he knew he wanted to be involved in the theater.

Born in 1971, Freedome, a native New Yorker, was raised in Harlem and Hempstead, Long Island, and is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA Theatre Program and a guest professor at Nassau Community College. Over the past two years, Freedome has been responsible for three successful, cutting edge off-Broadway festivals.

“We either adapt old plays or write new plays which illuminate the urban experience,” he says. “I think it’s really important to focus in on that because we’re in Morrisania, the South Bronx, Harlem, Von King Park in Brooklyn, South Queens, so It’s important that we reflect their stories so people can see that it’s a viable way of seeing their stories told.”  Freedom explained that when people speak of the “Great White Way” they don’t see anything but the “Great White Way”, not the Multicultural Way or Great Black Way, or the American way – so they want people to see that theatre is something that can transform and illuminate their own lives. Open rehearsals –where anyone can drop in– are put on to demystify the process and let people know that this is an entertainment option.

They commission works and work with theatre companies. They produce and present. Freedom said that if he can’t find a company doing the kind of work he wants to produce, he’ll go out and produce his own piece. Most of the SummerStage actors are union members or what Freedom referred to as “papered” or are undeniably skilled actors.

Freedom said, “Fifteen or twenty dollars is a lot of money for some people to put out to see an unknown commodity. The heyday of theatre is in another era.  Back in the days, when you rolled into town, everybody knew you were there.  Nowadays we have different ways of communicating with the Internet you don’t even have to be outside to know everything that’s going on.  It’s important that we get to people and let them know that this is a worthwhile endeavor to come on out and see these productions.”

A play by SummerStage alumna, Chisa Hutchinson, which peaked a lot of interest was Tunde’s Trumpet, a musical story about a boy besieged by doubts, jealousy and laziness, told through puppetry. This was their first family-oriented play and is light-hearted entertainment.  Previous productions have been hard-hitting, intense dramas. 

Etymology of Bird, written by Zakiyah Alexander is a fine example of how SummerStage, under the direction of Freedome Bradley, reflects the lives of the neighborhood people where they perform. This play involves the killing of a 19-year-old male, Timothy Stansbury, who was slain by a policeman while crossing over a roof from one building to another in Brooklyn. 

This play has been performed in various colleges and universities across the country, but never performed in the neighborhood where the incident occurred until SummerStage performed it at Von King Park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This is one of the more intense, hard-hitting dramas and delves into race relations, criminal justice, life, love, fear and stereotypes. Unfortunately, “Etymology” has run its course for this season – look for it next summer.

SummerStage does classical productions also, but with a twist. For instance, they have worked with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and taken a 3-hour production and boiled it down to a 1 ½ hour essential production. They produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago, and reduced it to five actors playing all parts in 90 minutes!   Quite a feat, wouldn’t you say?  Freedome explained that in addition to having no intermissions, the shorter time span tends to hold the audience attention.

An outstanding feature of Freedome’s productions is the ability to take classical pieces and not only reduce them in length and performers, but to contemporize by the use of costumes and settings, so that the target audience can readily identify and relate to the production. When asked about the Shakespearian language and how it was handled, Freedom said that “we keep the language, but it’s not a hard iambic pentameter.  The language has to be presented in a way that the people can understand it. I’ll give you an example, an older gentleman who was sitting with two of his grandchildren, came over and asked what we were doing. I explained that we were doing Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  The older gent then said, ‘he’s going to be big someday’. What we do, through costume and settings, is make the presentation so it’s not totally foreign to our audience.  Macbeth was set in Africa.” 

Is this cutting edge or not?

A production SummerStage can take pride in is the re-envisioning of Federico Garcia Larkin’s 1932 tragedy, “Blood Wedding” with the production of “SANGRE”. SummerStage commissioned upcoming playwrights Mando Alvardo and Summerstage alumna Chisa Hutchinson for this play.  Here we have innovative staging where off-stage action is brought on stage, with the play being contemporized and set in the South Bronx.
One of Freedome’s personal favorites is Indomitable: James Brown. As the title indicates, the play is about the late, great music icon James Brown. In this production, Christie’s Auction House is auctioning off items belonging to James Brown.

James Brown comes on stage from time-to-time to reflect and sing, but the conflict occurs when Christies brings out his “soul” to be auctioned.  This production honors James Brown and gives testament to his music, political and entrepreneurial impact. This production will not run again until next year – try not to miss it.

And last, but by no means least, try to catch the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, which explores the brutally thoughtful, funny, belligerent diplomacy of King Henry V.  

Remember – all these productions are FREE – compliments of SummerStage and the City Parks Foundation!!


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