Luna Stage will present outdoor theater experience, ‘The Ground on Which We Stand’

howe house montclair


The James Howe House in Montclair.

(UPDATE: Due to expected rain, the outdoor presentation has been moved from April 29 to May 20.)

James Howe was the first formerly enslaved African-American to own a home in Montclair. He became the owner at 369 Claremont Ave. when his enslaver, Nathanial Crane, one of the founders of Montclair (the township was originally known as Cranetown), died in the 1830s. Howe’s house has been unlandmarked for years.

Last year, a community group, Friends of the Howe House, came together to preserve Howe’s home and legacy.

“This is the moment where the way that we talk about the history of the community potentially changes,” says Ari Laura Kreith, artistic director of Luna Stage in West Orange. “Suddenly James Howe’s story gets to be centered in our understanding.”

To help explore this story, the nonprofit theater is producing a multi-playwright site-specific performance called “The Ground on Which We Stand.” The theatrical experience will be staged outdoors and consist of a series of monologues that take audiences in history from 1780 to the present day. On April 29, groups of 20 people will embark on a guided one-mile walk from monologue to monologue in the area between the Crane and Howe houses. Kreith estimates that the experience will last an hour and 45 minutes. In addition, on April 30, the monologues will be performed indoors in the 99-seat Luna Stage theater.

Kreith emphasizes that this is not a reenactment. “There’ll be a lot of historical context that’s shared,” she says. “But we hope that the experience is artistic and engaging as opposed to simply historical. The monologues reflect a lot of different perspectives on this story.”

The theatrical experience grapples with the following questions, she says: “How do we, as a community, tell our own story? And how do cultures and communities create memorials? And what do those memorials mean about how we understand ourselves? And what does it mean when they shift? What does it take to shift them? How does it allow us to reimagine our relationship to our past and our present and our future when we choose to engage with or potentially center different stories?”

The seed for this experience was planted during the pandemic. That is when Kreith heard about a historian who was documenting underground railroad history in Essex County. “He shared just this extraordinary body of research, oral histories, architectural drawings, primary sources, that he had gathered over a lifetime, and entrusted us with trying to share some of these stories in theatrical form,” she says.

The project meshes well with Luna Stage’s larger commitment “to creating work that is accessible and engages members of our multiple communities that we serve (and) an invitation to experience art on whatever terms one wishes,” she says.

The finished work is a collaboration between several historian-activist playwrights, including ​​Turron Kofi Alleyne, Jenny Lyn Bader, Sakinah Hofler, Stephen Kaplan, Kyle Mazer, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Diane Polledri, Martine Sainvil, Mo Schlick, TyLie Shider, Melissa Toomey and Richard Wesley.

The project is expanding beyond Essex County. Luna Stage is also partnering with Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick to present elements of the project at their Genesis Festival ’23 of New Voices and New Plays. Eventually, the theatrical experience may tour in Montclair schools.

Kreith summarizes her hopes for the world premiere as, “we build relationships with people by not having just one conversation with them, but by having an experience.”

Perhaps by the end of this theatrical experience, she says, “there are new relationships that are built or new levels of understanding, not just of the James Howe arc, which is, I think, deeply meaningful to understand, but also of things that we can’t anticipate or predict.”

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