Maija García is the producer, director and choreographer of Ghosts of Manhattan, a new theater experience in Fort Tryon Park that details the city's cultural evolution over 500 years.
A spiritual journey for members of Ghosts
Story and photos by Sherry Mazzocchi
Video by Sherry Mazzocchi
When actor Armando Batista first learned about Juan (Jan) Rodríguez, he never dreamed he'd be portraying him in the huge performance piece Ghosts of Manhattan that debuted in Fort Tryon Park this weekend.
But, Rodríguez immediately rose from the dead when director and choreographer Maija García asked Batista who he would be in the Ghosts production.
Ghosts of Manhattan is an epic multi-media performance imagined as "a walk-through theater experience that presents an interactive history through music, dance, design and storytelling."
It takes actors and audiences through a 500-year span of time and space. It explores events taken from one year of each century from 1512 to present day. Each era is staged in a different area of Fort Tryon Park.
The inner preparation for characters also took actors on an emotional journey. García asked them who they would be 100, 200 years or even longer ago?
"For a lot of my actors and dancers, that was a very difficult question because a lot of us are people of color," García said.
Not only is García the director and choreographer, she's also self-producing Ghosts. Lesser mortals would shrink from the triple workload, but she's proven both fearless and focused.
She's also talented.
García has collaborated with Bill T. Jones as the creative director and associate choreographer of FELA! Her resume is a long list of theater, dance and performances at venues including the Public Theater, PBS, the Colbert Report and the Yale School of Drama.
Yet, many of her cast members aren't traditional actors or dancers.
Batista describes himself as "a mover."
He channels Rodríguez with movement. Sometimes Rodríguez is a chameleon who tries to blend in. Other times he's a cat who observes and dashes away quickly when required.
Batista resonated with Rodríguez in lots of ways.
Both their ancestries are anchored in Hispaniola. Both are trailblazers.
In the early 1600s, Rodríguez was the first known free man of color to establish himself in Manhattan. Batista hails from St. Nicholas Avenue and 187th Street.
He recently returned to the city after stints at boarding school, military college, London and Los Angeles to establish himself as an independent artist.
Actor Femi Olagoka also feels a certain kinship with his character, boxer Jack Johnson. Originally from Nigeria, he's an athlete and trained with an Olympic boxer before embarking on a career as an actor.
Johnson was the first black heavy weight champion of the world.
In Ghosts, Olagoka reenacts the 1910 "Fight of the Century" where Johnson beats the undefeated heavyweight champ James Jeffries, who came out of retirement for the fight.
Johnson defeated him in the 15th round under the searing summertime Nevada heat.
Nigerians and Americans think differently in terms of race, Olagoka said.
In Nigeria, people see each other as the same. "When you come here," he said, "you know or you're told you're black. And you should know your role."
But Johnson was a larger than life character who broke through barriers. He did what he wanted—dressed in the finest clothes, ate in fancy restaurants, dated and married white women.
"He was unapologetic for his behavior," Olagoka said. "He saw himself as equal—if not even better than everyone else."
Possibly the most unusual character in Ghosts is played by Valerie Evering. She plays Lucille, the prized racehorse owned by the eccentric businessman, C.K.G. Billings.
Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings paid two or three times what Lucille would have normally sold for because he admired her beauty and grace. To prepare for the part, Evering studied horses' facial expressions and movement.
"It's a little bit of magical realism," she said. "The implication is there is some sort of relationship there—an intimate relationship. Is she a woman or is she a horse?" Billings spent so much time with her, some believed something more was afoot.
García said she was moved by how capably the actors take on challenging roles. "I'm asking a lot of them," she said.
"I'm really grateful that they are with me on this," she said. "They are moving through and trudging through this process with such generosity and bravery."
To hear from the cast and crew of Ghosts of Manhattan, please visit http://bit.ly/MT_054.
To hear from Juan "Jan" Rodriguez, please visit http://bit.ly/MT_055.
For more information on Ghosts of Manhattan, show dates and times, please visit http://www.organicmagnetics.com/ghosts-of-manhattan/.