Black Theatre Troupe revisits shocking episode in U.S. history

Nine years ago, an itinerant theater company then known as Soul Rebel Performance Troupe struggled to find enough Black actors to cast in the Capital Region’s first production of the play “Camp Logan,” by Houston playwright Celeste Bedford Walker. It dramatizes a shocking but lesser-known incident from American history:

In 1917, responding to brutality by Houston police against two soldiers from the nearby military base Camp Logan, more than 150 members of the all-Black Third Battalion of the 24th United States Infantry Regiment mutinied, armed themselves and marched on the city. Armed police responded, and a race riot broke out, leaving 20 civilians, soldiers and police dead. Military justice was swift and severe: After three trials by courts-martial, 41 soldiers were given life sentences, and 19 were put to death by hanging.

Today, Soul Rebel is known as the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY, it has a permanent home at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, and actors of color were not in short supply for the seven-member cast, six of whom are Black.

While much has changed for the theater company, the state of race relations in America today hasn’t improved, and is indeed likely worse, from when Soul Rebel/Black Theatre Troupe founder Jean-Remy Monnay directed the play in 2013, Monnay said. And some of the conditions that led to the deadly conflict 105 years ago remain today, he said.

“I felt it was important to bring it back because as we saw in 2020, ’21, these things are still happening,” said Monnay, who is producer of “Camp Logan” but asked Aaron Moore to direct, “to see what someone else brings to it.”

Monnay connected race-related protests and violent response from authorities from Houston in 1917 and the massacre of Black residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 to contemporary uprisings across America after the killing by police of Black people including Daunte Wright in Minneapolis (2021); Andre Hill in Columbus, Ohio, and Manuel Ellis in Wacoma, Washington, both 2020; and more famous cases such as Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and George Floyd. Further, Monnay said, these recent cases happened during a period of resurgent white supremacy and antiminority sentiment that grew during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We’re dealing with the same things,” Monnay said. “I don’t see what’s going to change unless we educate people more, and stories like this in the theater is an important way to do that.”

Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY was named The Rep’s first resident company in June of last year. It remains artistically and financially independent but receives benefits including access to The Rep’s ticketing system, technical staff, community visibility and a regular stage to call home.

“It’s made a tremendous difference in (The Rep’s) artistic life to have (Monnay) around,” said The Rep’s longtime producing artistic director, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, who met Monnay in 2006 when he auditioned for a show at The Rep. Born in Haiti, he spent 30 years working in human resources for New York state. He established Soul Rebel in 2009, evolving to its current name and not-for-profit status in 2018, when he retired from the state.

“It’s very powerful to be around him,” Mancinelli-Cahill said. “He’s very clear on his mission: (Black Theatre Troupe) is a place where Black actors, who are young or are older but haven’t had much of a chance to be on stage, can get experience working on plays with all-Black or mostly Black casts.”

Monnay said being based at The Rep, in its new facility at the foot of Albany’s majority-Black Arbor Hill neighborhood, makes BTTUNY visible and accessible to potential BIPOC audiences, but most patrons for its productions remain white.

“Before we were (at The Rep), I was still having to go around and ask actors if they wanted to be in a show,” Monnay said. “Now I just put up the auditions in the usual places and on social media, and the actors come out.”

Now to get the word out to audiences.

“We still don’t have enough people of color coming to see us,” Monnay said. Referring to a Black entertainment mogul whose touring productions have sold out the Palace Theatre in years past, Monnay said, “When Tyler Perry is here, they show up. Now we want them to come support a local Black company and local Black artists. I have to believe it is about education, about bringing people good stories, so we’re going to continue to do that.”

“Camp Logan”
 Presented by Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate NY

When: 7:30 p.m. June 2 to 4 and 9 to 11, 4 p.m. June 5 and 12
Where: Capital Repertory Theatre, 251 N. Pearl St., Albany
Tickets: $20 ($15 students and seniors)
Info: 518-445-7469 or blacktheatretroupeupstateny.org

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