Sometimes one must look back to understand the present. At least that’s how Jean-Remy Monnay, producing artistic director of the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York, sees it.
That’s part of the reason he’s bringing a reading of the historical drama “Camp Logan” to the virtual stage Saturday in celebration of Juneteenth.
The play, written by Celeste Bedford Walker, follows the story of six Black United States soldiers and the incidents leading to a 1917 riot in Houston. The soldiers were part of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment. After they were deployed in Houston, they were confronted by Jim Crow laws and openly harassed by police. Eventually, police beat a young Black woman and one of the unit’s soldiers. In retaliation, 156 armed soldiers in the regiment marched into Houston’s San Felipe neighborhood. A battle resulted in the deaths of 11 civilians, five police officers and four Black soldiers.
Military courts later deemed the events a mutiny; 19 Black soldiers were executed and 47 were sentenced to life in prison without parole. The episode is considered one of the most controversial cases of racial bias in U.S. military history.
Yet Monnay has found that many people aren’t aware of the Houston riot. He’s previously presented the play in the Capital Region, and both actors and audience members have said the play marked the first time they’d even heard of the events, which is one reason Monnay wanted to bring it back this year.
“A lot of times you have to go back to understand what happened in the past to deal with the present and then move on. A lot of people just don’t understand, whether you’re Black or white, you need to know our history. If you understand our history you’ll know why there’s a Black Lives Matter [movement],” Monnay said.
Monnay is originally from Haiti but has called the Capital Region home since the late 1990s. He founded the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York years ago as a way to foster Black actors and other actors of color.
“Nobody was doing that kind of work,” Monnay recalled of when he first started the not-for-profit. He spent a lot of time reaching out to people in Black communities who were interested in acting or who he thought might have a knack for it. After creating a network, the troupe began putting on a few productions a year, including “Camp Logan.”
It’s grown quite a bit over the years. In 2020, Monnay said, the troupe collaborated with seven other theater companies to create “8:46,” a production in which each company wrote a piece that was exactly eight minutes and 46 seconds long in honor of George Floyd.
While the Black Theatre Troupe doesn’t have a home theater, Monnay partners with local venues to host productions. In the case of “Camp Logan,” he’s working with Capital Repertory Theatre and its associate artistic director, Margaret Hall.
Since 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, more theater and production companies have contacted him and have asked to work together, which Monnay views as a positive.
“I’m glad they’re doing more now after this movement, Black Lives Matter, and I’m glad they’re doing more to give opportunities,” Monnay said.
He said even the production team behind HBO’s “Gilded Age” contacted him looking for Black actors.
“It feels good because they’re shooting [the series] in Troy, they’re all calling me looking for Black actors. Every time I turn around I’m getting an email from our website [that] they’re looking for Black actors because they know that’s what I do. It’s like every day. … I do the best I can do to help them find actors,” Monnay said.
He just hopes theaters and production companies continue to provide those opportunities.
“The only thing I’m afraid of is it’s hot right now. How long is [it] going to last? [Is] it going to go back to the old ways? I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen, and I’m praying it’s not,” Monnay said. “The good thing is the Black Theatre Troupe is always going to be there. … We’re just going to keep doing the work.”
“Camp Logan” will be available to view from 5 p.m. Saturday through 10 p.m. Tuesday on Capital Repertory’s streaming platforms, including Proctors Collaborative YouTube channel, Apple TV, Amazon Fire and others. It’s free to view with a suggested donation of $15. All proceeds go to Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate New York.
The cast includes Preston Edmunds as Joe Moses; Emmett Ferris as Sgt. McKinney; Donald — The Soul Man — Hyman as Jacques “Bugaloosa” Honore; John Johnson as Charles Hardin; Aileem Penn as Robert Franciscus; Majestic Tillman as Gweely Brown; Brian Toal as Captain Zuelke; and Evan Jones as Townsman and stage directions.
More from The Daily Gazette: