African-American Scientist During Slavery Takes the Stage in YOUNG BENJAMIN BANNEKER: A MUSICAL
Alexander Hamilton, meet Benjamin Banneker.
Theater for the New City Executive Director Crystal Field is presenting "Young Benjamin Banneker: a Musical," a journey through history and song based on the story of an African-American astronomer and mathematician during the era of slavery.
The musical, which runs through April 24, was written, directed and includes lyrics by Juan Villegas and music composed by T. Scott Lilly, Matthew Angel and Villegas. Tickets are available by clicking the tickets link.
At a time when "Hamilton" has sparked national interest, this show brings to life an African- American figure via story and song.
Banneker was born a free man in 1731 and became an accomplished, self-taught man of science when many African-Americans were slaves.
He faced many challenges in addition to the mathematical problems he enjoyed solving, including the threat of being captured and sold as a slave.
"He has always stood out to me as an example of one who achieved, even when the means were scarce, as one who contended with the reality of slavery," Villegas said. "This play was written as one small attempt to rescue Benjamin Banneker from an undeserved and unfair obscurity."
The musical includes a large cast with Aaron Griffen, Alison Nolan, Brandon Mellette, Carlos Oliveras, Danielle Aziza, Isaiah Lebron, Justin Rodriguez, Matthew Angel, Maurice J. McPherson, Primy Rivera, Rooki Tiwari, Ruby Hurlock, Sarah Lilly, T. Scott Lilly, Zen Mansley, and the Voice of Celestina Bradsher-Layne. Ruby Hurlock will understudy the role of Mary April 14 and 15.
And it looks at part of the life of the man who published Maryland's first Almanac and helped survey Washington D.C. among many other things.
Banneker at age 14 (played by Aaron Griffen) travels to a town with his mother Molly (played by Sarah Lilly), the family's matriarch and a former indentured servant.
They meet a clock maker named Josef Levi (Zen Mansley) and his wife Tamara (Rooki Tiwari). As a token of respect and affection, Josef Levi places a pocket watch in Banneker's satchel as a surprise gift.
But instead of providing a pleasant surprise, that watch becomes a gift that could ruin Banneker's life. When he gets home, the young man can't explain to his parents how he came to have such an expensive possession.
"To redeem himself, Benjamin hastily heads off to town to return the watch," Villegas said.
In his travels, he must evade "soul drivers" or slaver traders who go from farm to farm selling sick or unwanted slaves.
"Although he was born free in colonial America, it was a time of rampant slavery, and one wrong turn might have changed his destiny," Villegas continued.
The 90-minute show, with no intermission, to quote the play, is about a man whose "talents might have been for naught in a time when lives were sold or bought."
The production captures history and a young man's efforts to survive, remain free and, finally, live to become an important, if sometimes forgotten, figure in American history.
"This musical explores issues of race and trust in early America, issues that today are at the forefront of our political and social dialogue," Villegas said.
Some people are aware of Banneker's role in history and his efforts to triumph through technology, at a time when so many African Americans were oppressed,
"Sadly, the legacy and achievements of Benjamin Banneker are not being taught or celebrated nearly enough, even as we recognize the need for more African Americans in STEM fields," Villegas said.
The show at once tells an exciting story through dialogue, action and music and reminds us of one young man's efforts in the face of extreme danger.
"The experience will inspire you to spread the word about the first African-American 'Man of Science,'" Villegas said. "You'll find yourself eager to share in his rich legacy that truly belongs to us all."
The production's set design is by Mark Marcante with set decoration by Lytza Colon; sound design by Joy Linscheid; lighting design by Alex Bartenieff and lights operated by Jay Araujo. Natasha Velez is stage manager and Terry Lee King is choreographer.
"Young Benjamin Banneker: A Musical," now through April 24 with performances Thurs.- Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $10 for students and seniors at www.theaterforthenewcity.net or 212-254-1109.
Founded in 1970, Theater for the New City or TNC is a unique cultural Institution that has earned a nationwide reputation for its dedication to nurturing established and emerging playwrights. Executive Director Crystal Field, one of the theater's co-founders, continues to keep TNC relevant and varied, including new musicals, shows, dance and community art services and festivals, which continue to make art accessible and affordable in New York City.