Vanguard Theater brings Broadway flair to Montclair's 4th ward

·5 min read

The Vanguard Theater may be the best-kept secret in Montclair.

Case in point: Their current production, the Tony-award-winning musical "Passing Strange," about a Black musician’s quest for identity, is getting rave reviews.

It stars three Broadway actors including veteran Dwayne Clark, who dashes to Vanguard’s stage after rehearsing at the Nederlander Theater in New York City for "Shucked," opening on the Great White Way on March 8.

“Dwayne has the most ridiculous schedule,” said Vanguard’s founder Janeece Freeman Clark of her husband (they met in the Broadway cast of "Urinetown.") “He’s singing all day. But when the curtain comes down at 11 p.m., he hasn’t missed a beat.”

Another Broadway veteran, Montclair resident Brandi Chavonne Massey, who played the first Black Elphaba on Broadway in "Wicked," has a prominent role, along with Montclair High School graduate and resident Jason Tyler Smith, fresh off the national tour of "Rent."

Ticket prices are $20 to $40, less than the price of transportation into New York City.

Yet in a recent post on a Montclair Facebook page, one attendee, who called the show “amazing,” lamented that there were empty seats in the small theater on the first of only two weekends. ("Passing Strange" closes March 5). Another poster didn’t seem to know Montclair had a theater. “Where is it?” he asked.

Passing Strange is now showing at Vanguard Theater in Montclair, with A’ja Desormeau, 
Montclair High School graduate Jason Tyler Smith and Amanda Rose Gross
Passing Strange is now showing at Vanguard Theater in Montclair, with A’ja Desormeau, Montclair High School graduate Jason Tyler Smith and Amanda Rose Gross

Where is Vanguard theater?

Vanguard’s location, in a renovated ballroom dance hall in Montclair’s 4th Ward, the town’s historically Black neighborhood, is slightly off the town’s beaten path. But that’s by design, said Freeman Clark, who founded the company to address a "lack of true diversity in theater” − in casting training, producing, creative teams and audiences.

In the last two years, the company has been putting its principles into practice with productions of "Rent," "Spitfire Grill," "Next to Normal" and "A Portrait of Ray," about Ray Charles, written by Freeman Clark and her husband.

In "Next to Normal," for instance, the lead was played by a Black actor, opening up a conversation about mental health issues specific to the Black community. Community partners, such as Integrated Care Concepts, spoke to audiences on the topic and how to get help. For "Rent," Vanguard partnered with Out Montclair and the AIDS-advocacy nonprofit Hyacinth to discuss issues around HIV AIDs and marginalized communities.

“Color-conscious casting can really change the narrative,” Freeman Clark said.

Previous coverage: Montclair's newest theater company, Vanguard, set to open

Access to the arts

Also central to Vanguard’s mission is education, said Freeman Clark, who teaches musical theater at the Manhattan School of Music, is a professor of theater at Seton Hall and formerly directed youth in NJPAC's musical theater program. At a three-week summer stock sleepaway camp in West Milford, kids produce shows and one-act-play festivals and attend workshops on singing, dancing and acting with the guidance of Broadway actors.

The price is a fraction of what other theater camps cost, and Vanguard gives out more than $50,000 in financial aid, Freeman Clark said. “We strongly believe in access to a quality arts education regardless of zip code or what the family’s financial situation is,” she said. “When you bring people of different backgrounds together who have a shared love of theater, the stereotypes and barriers come down.”

Other youth programs at the theater such at VTC Kids and VTC Next have those as young as three working with mentors on all aspects of theater, from writing to costume design to choreography to music; Broadway veterans, and older kids are mentors. A recent performance of "Alice’s Rock and Roll Adventure" featured a band completely comprised of musicians under age 14.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever walked onto a stage before,” Freeman Clark said. “We create a safe space where kids feel free to be themselves unapologetically so they can really create.”

Trying to beat the odds

The economics of running a theater in Montclair are daunting. In 1990, the Whole Theater, run by Olympia Dukkakis for 17 years, closed after government budget cuts; the Luna Stage moved to West Orange in 2010 and 12 Miles West moved to Bloomfield in 2015. (It’s now in Rutherford.)

Freeman Clark hopes to beat the odds. So far, government funds have helped. During the pandemic COVID grants from that state helped with HVAC and bathroom upgrades to the old proscenium theater at 180 Bloomfield Ave.

Then and now, Lin Manuel-Miranda's family foundation, TeeRico, has been a big supporter and this month, the Michael Jordan Foundation announced that Vanguard is one of two theater companies in the country receiving a donation from the Jordan Brand’s Community Grant Program, an initiative of its Black Community Commitment supporting grassroots, non-profits that are improving Black lives in their neighborhoods.

And while ticket prices don't come close to covering costs, "getting butts in seats" is crucial, Freeman Clark said. It often leads to individual donations, when people "are blown away and ask how they can help."

"The more notice we get in the community, the better," she said.

To illustrate Vanguard's plight, Freeman Clark referenced a scene in Seussical, where "people living on this little flower in another universe shout out, ‘We are here,'" she said.

"That’s our inside joke. We just need people to know we are here. Because everyone who comes says, ‘Oh my goodness, how did we not know you're here? We will be back.'”

Julia Martin covers Montclair for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @TheWriteJulia 

This article originally appeared on Vanguard Theater brings Broadway flair to Montclair NJ