Jean-Remy Monnay began acting as a child, in his native country of Haiti.
As a young man, he performed with a Haitian theater group in New York City, delivering his lines in French and Creole. But eventually he decided he wanted to perform in English.
“People told me this would be a problem, because of my accent,” he said. “But I don’t allow people to tell me that there’s something I can’t do.”
Monnay moved to the Capital Region in 1997, where he studied performing arts at Schenectady County Community College and began acting in local theater. His first roles were a soldier and a priest in the George Bernard Shaw play “Saint Joan.” He now has 49 English-language plays under his belt.
“I got so many parts, because I was one of the only black actors in the area,” Monnay recalled.
But this troubled him, so in 2009 he founded the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe with the goal of giving minorities more opportunities in theater. He hosted play readings and workshops, and put on monologues and skits.
“People gave me a chance, and so now it is my time to give others a chance,” Monnay said. “I want to change the way things are. I want to make things a little more colorful.”
Later this week the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe will perform its first full-length play, “Camp Logan,” at Schenectady County Community College as part of Black History Month.
Written by Texas playwright Celeste Bedford Walker, “Camp Logan” tells the true and tragic story of the Houston riot of 1917 and its aftermath, which saw 19 black soldiers court-martialed and hanged.
The soldiers were from the all-black third battalion of the United States Infantry, which had been ordered to Houston to guard a construction site. When a member of the battalion was arrested for interfering with the arrest of a black woman, one of the battalion’s MPs, Cpl. Charles Baltimore, inquired about the arrest and was hit over the head, fired at, chased and taken to police headquarters, where he was released, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
The incident, combined with mounting racial tension, inspired more than 100 armed soldiers to march into downtown Houston against their officers’ orders, where they killed 16 whites, including four policemen. Four black soldiers also died. Military tribunals were convened, and 118 soldiers were indicted for participating in the mutiny and riot, 110 of whom were found guilty.
“The play is about racism in the military,” Monnay said. “It’s very educational, which is why we’re doing it for Black History Month.” He said a friend saw the play performed in Texas and sent him the script, which he immediately fell in love with. “I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’m doing,’ ” he recalled.
“Camp Logan” is one of three plays that the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe plans to perform this year. The other two are “Reunion in Bartersville,” which is also by Celeste Bedford Walker, and “Death of Macbeth,” a work by Troy-based playwright Joe Starzyk.
Monnay said he has achieved his goal of creating a deeper pool of minority theater talent.
“Now if you are looking for black actors, you will have no problem finding them,” he said. He added that his group often puts on racially mixed plays that include whites, Latinos and Asians. On his business card, the Soul Rebel Performance Troupe is described as “a theatrical outlet for people of color.”
“Camp Logan” is being put on with support from Price Chopper. Pam Cerrone, manager of community relations at Price Chopper, said she had been impressed by Monnay’s enthusiasm. “He has a lot of energy,” she said, noting that SRPT has a “cool mission of getting minorities interested in the performing arts.”
Carolyn Pinn, SCCC’s coordinator of personnel services/affirmative action officer, said “Camp Logan” will provide theatergoers an opportunity to learn more about World War I and the experience of black soldiers. She said Monnay is very “committed to telling the stories and history of African Americans.”
Monnay, 49, lives in Latham and works in the human resource department at the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. He immigrated to New York in 1982, which reunited him with his mother, who had moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s. But the busyness of New York City was not for him.
“I love New York City,” he said. “But I got tired of getting up in the morning. What I’ve accomplished up here, I don’t think I could have done down there.”
Monnay said the theater has taught him a lot.
“One thing I always tell people is that I learned most of my English from doing theater,” he said. “Every time I do a play, I learn something. I get smarter. I learn about other cultures. I learn about history.”
“Camp Logan” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. on Feb. 17 in the Taylor Auditorium at SCCC. The play will also be formed at Sand Lake Center for the Arts in Averill Park at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 23.