MICHAEL MONASTERIAL’S PASSING THE TORCH THROUGH THE ARTS

Nomination Essay for Dutchess County Executive Arts Award
(click here to download)

               Creating Positive Social Change through the Arts and Education

            During the past 12 months, Michael Monasterial’s Passing the Torch Through the Arts has made a big impact on audiences young and old in the Hudson Valley.  From Beacon to Troy and all that is in between, thousands have seen or participated in one of Michael Monasterial’s original theater productions or school programs.   It has been an outstanding year, reaching a few thousand people through live, interactive performances in schools, libraries, local theaters, and cultural centers. 

            Passing the Torch Through the Arts, as conceived by Michael Monasterial, is a “multi-cultural, multigenerational assortment of imaginative individuals working towards social change. We keep our focus on youth at the center of all initiatives and believe in growth through collaboration.  Diversity is an asset we posses both culturally and professionally and at the heart of our company is camaraderie and support.”

            Often the path we choose, either good or bad impacts on our life.  In Michael’s case his challenges as a youth have propelled him to create educational history through his original, tell the truth, highly moral plays.  As he notes on their website (www.passingthetorchthroughthearts.com),“When I was a young man I was headed down the wrong path and my involvement in Theater and the Arts changed my life. It gave me a love for the written word, self worth, better communication skills and an ability to work with others in a professional manner…these skills made me employable and offered me a different life. This is what I am dedicating my life’s work to, giving the same options to the youth of my community.”

            From last summer to this summer, Passing the Torch Through the Arts has been a tremendous force for change and innovation in our communities and schools.  Highlights of the year include:

“Improv to Improve” a Greek Mythology class at Miller Middle School in Kingston (funded by a grant from the Dutchess County Arts Council).   

“Sam Cooke, Where You Been Baby? An original gospel, fusion play about the legendary singer Sam Cooke.  Close to thirty performances to packed houses throughout the Valley.  Powerful, truthful, thought provoking, educational history at its finest.


Dozens of performances of original plays on historic Black figures including Martin Luther King Jr, Paul Robeson, Touissant Loverture, known as the George Washington of Haiti, local slave James Brown and more.


Cordell Reaves
Historic Preservation Program Analyst
NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Cordell.Reaves@oprhp.state.ny.us / www.nysparks.com

Michael Monasterial delivered a powerful and moving performance at the New York State Museum as part of a joint NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and New York State Museum program. The title of the program was “A weed that grows on every soil: Slavery in the Hudson Valley.”

The story of slavery is integral to understanding the history of the United States. It is a history that is greatly misunderstood and often glossed over. Mr. Monasterial’s performance centered on the stories of enslaved people who escaped slavery.

Using a blend of dramatic monologue, song and multi-media, Mr. Monasterial stirred the emotions of the crowd relating tales of escaping slaves fleeing bondage in the south to lead free lives in the northern states and Canada.  He moved seamlessly between accounts of different historic figures and also shifting perspectives from actor to storyteller to educator.

The performance was truly an engaging experience and appealed to audience members of all ages. At one point Mr. Monasterial directly spoke to a child in the crowd, allowing her a chance to interact with him and be a part of the performance.  People were moved as well as educated and definitely entertained by his unique approach to performance art.


NY State Assemblymen Kevin Cahill and the New York State Asssembly made a statewide proclamation honoring Passing the Torch Through the Arts and its contribution to the culture of New York and Community service to enhance the lives of the residents of New York State and of the Nation. Thanks Kevin... kudos are great, but we do it for the Love...



Sam Cooke: A Troubled Man’s Life Cleverly and Beautifully Brought to Life

Review by Barry Plaxen

sam-cooke-1Passing the Torch Through the Arts, a non-profit organization that has as part of its mission “enlightening and enriching the lives of our children, thereby enriching our nation’s future, and finally mankind as a whole,” brought its production of “Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?” to Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake on Thursday, February 24, 2011.

This original musical play by Michael Monasterial illuminates the life of the legendary pop singer who wrote, performed and produced 24 Billboard hits over his eight years at the top of the charts.

Cooke was also a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement and an inventor of musical styles that are still incorporated in pop and gospel music 50 years later.

The musical play deals with his early years in Mississippi, his flight from small town living, his rise to fame, his career and marriage and his inability to master his life.

Throughout the play, Monasterial cleverly and astutely intersperses some of Cooke’s major hits that make appropriate comments on the scenes.

But the play’s the thing. And Monasterial’s dialogue made that so. Each scene had a beginning, middle and end. No extraneous words were there to distract from the momentum – the energy – he designed for the action to move toward the tragic ending.

One could easily see Cooke’s self-destructive personality being formed in the beginning of the play and understand the conflicts: familial, religious, social, ethnical, etc., that led to his untimely demise.

When Cooke, who was rarely at home with his family because of his desire to tour and perform, comes home to find that his son has died in a tragic accident, I realized this is not just about Cooke, but this is also the study of a human being. When a play can be viewed on multiple levels, it has greater value because it then reaches more people. In this case, fans of Cooke can watch his life unfold and hear his music. Others for whom he was not an icon, can see past that and witness the well-written dramatic telling of the downfall of a troubled everyman whose behavior conflicts with every value he was taught to believe when he was a child.

The symbol of success to Cooke was a swimming pool. As a child and young man he envied those “who lived on the hill” and lounged around their pool. Ironically, after his monumental success as an artist, and living in a large California home, Cooke’s son drowns in his swimming pool. Though this shocking irony made the tragic death emotionally very powerful on an additional level, Monasterial’s excellent writing and the direction and acting of this scene between Cooke and his wife made it a great theatrical moment for me that I will never forget.

“Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?” is a good example of a well-written play. Monasterial’s dialogue always moves the action forward, is exciting and interesting to watch and in the second half, extremely moving. Whoever his “ear” is, another person or himself, is to be congratulated.

This excellent melding of Cooke’s life and his songs was directed by Esther Taylor Evans, with music by Bruce Berky, saxophonist, who was seen live adding pathos to the performance with a tender execution of his melodies, and choreography by Abby Lappen.

AnnChris Warren was Cooke’s wife, Vi. Mostly. As Vi, she added much to the joy of love and success at the outset, and pain and suffering that was to follow. When playing another character, she completely was that other character, in tone, body movement and aura.

Lucinda Carr was Cooke’s “Nanna” and the mentor of his morality. She provided him with “proper” values and was his main source of love and nurturing. Steve Jones and Dennis Washington played multiple parts: father, uncle, choir director, other locals, record company executives, etc. They were convincing in all their parts, often moving the audience to laughter or tears, and entertaining with their singing.

Playwright Monasterial (photo right) played Cooke and did himself and the production proud with his clean and precise writing, his soft, charismatic quality, his myriad of believable emotions, and his Cooke-style singing.

A true man of the theatre, Monasterial knows what he is doing.


Sam Cooke's life unfolds on stage

from the Poughkeepsie Journal

The man behind the singing legend is the focus of a new work by a local playwright that will take the stage this weekend.

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" written by Michael Monasterial, founder and artistic director of Passing the Torch Through the Arts, an inner-city program for youth designed to foster enlightenment and education through the theater, will be staged tonight at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon.

"The play is a moral fable about Cooke's personal evolution," Monasterial said about the legendary black singer-songwriter. "It's about the man beneath the legend — what his struggles were, and what his mistakes were."

Cooke, whose musical talent quickly propelled him to fame, was born in the small town of Clarksdale, Miss., in 1931. He came from a religious family that was upset by his desire to showcase his abilities, not only in local gospel groups, but in a secular context, as well.

"His family was distressed that he had a gift, but used this gift to glorify himself instead of God," Monasterial said.

The musical highlights the pivotal moments in the artist's life. It portrays, for example, the moment in which Cooke witnessed a lynching as a young man performing in Chicago, a life-changing event that inspired him to fight for the rights of blacks later on in his career. Cooke's tragic, untimely death — he was shot to death by the manager of a Los Angeles motel in 1964, the details of which remain sketchy today — is also depicted in the show.

"Cooke," much of which takes place during the civil rights movement, also celebrates the trials and tribulations of the black experience. Cooke was, as Monasterial said he began to understand while doing research for the show, not just a musician, but a civil rights activist as well.

"Everyone who comes to the show learns something about the civil rights movement," stage manager Pat Gallio said. "Or about the different challenges that a black artist — Cooke, particularly — faced during this period of time in America."

Cooke's music has been arranged and adapted to the stage by local musician Bruce Berky, who is adjunct professor of music at Ulster County Community College. Wendell Anderson of the '70s soul group Hues Corporation, who is working on a new album in Port Ewen, Ulster County, will also make an appearance to sing the Hues' hit "Rock the Boat." Nine year-old Maya Monasterial will sing Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love."

A small, carefully selected cast, according to Monasterial, creates an intimate feeling that adds to the show's dynamic. Monasterial and Anderson will portray Cooke; Anne Chris-Warren will play Cooke's wife; Evelyn Clarke will portray his grandmother; and Stephen Jones has the role of his manager.

"We're like a family," Monasterial said. "And we've just been perfecting this show."


'Sam Cooke' comes to Rosendale Saturday

By ANN GIBBONS, Freeman staff

It's a long journey from Cicero to Passing the Torch through the Arts, but both the Roman poet and Michael Monasterial, Torch founder and artistic director, are passionate about the same thing: the dual role of the arts in people's lives.

Cicero held that the purpose of poetry was to teach and entertain. Monasterial, in his newest production, "Sam Cooke: Where You Been, Baby?" embraces the same for the broader arts spectrum. He brings his rock/gospel musical on Saturday to the Rosendale Theatre Collective.

click here to read the full article, or watch the video below!


Sam Cooke's life unfolds on stage

MATT BOCK • FOR THE POUGHKEEPSIE JOURNAL • FEBRUARY 12, 2011

The man behind the singing legend is the focus of a new work by a local playwright that will take the stage this weekend.

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" written by Michael Monasterial, founder and artistic director of Passing the Torch Through the Arts, an inner-city program for youth designed to foster enlightenment and education through the theater, will be staged tonight at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon.

"The play is a moral fable about Cooke's personal evolution," Monasterial said about the legendary black singer-songwriter. "It's about the man beneath the legend — what his struggles were, and what his mistakes were."...

click here to read the full article, or click the photos to enlarge

 


MLK Programs at Desmond Fish Library Explore the Life of James F. Brown, Local Pioneer of American Freedoms

Garrison, NY – January 6, 2011
The Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison, New York will present its 15th annual Martin Luther King Day observances, “Bringing the Dream Home:  Civil Rights and the Hudson Valley” Sunday evening, January 16 and Monday afternoon January 17. 

This year’s program explores the life and writings of James F. Brown, an African American who escaped from slavery in Baltimore 1828 and worked on the Verplanck family estate, Mount Gulian, now a historic site in Beacon open to visitors. Brown learned to read and write, and left a rare and fascinating written record of his life and times before and during the Civil War, now lodged at the New York Historical Society, including a diary covering the years 1829-1866.


Detail from James F. Brown diary - New York Historical Society

In an extant letter to his former slaveowners explaining his reasons for leaving, he states:  "No man of integrity can provide for his family within the limitations of slavery."  He demonstrated his integrity in the way he rose to become a trusted and empowered manager of the large and racially diverse Mt. Gulion estate staff, became a noted horticulturist, bought his own home and property, voted in local and national elections, participated in political parties and civic and social organizations, and even dared to return to Baltimore to purchase his wife’s freedom-- at a time when other African Americans in New York were still prey to slavecatchers.


Myra Armstead
On Sunday evening, January 16, the Library will present an MLK eve potluck supper at 6:30pm (bringing food to share is welcome) and speaker’s program for adults at 7pm,  featuring Myra Young Armstead,  Bard College history professor and author of the forthcoming book Freedom's Gardener:  James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America (NYU Press).  Her previous books include  “Lord, Please Don’t Take Me in August”: African Americans in Newport and Saratoga Springs and Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley. Her January 16 talk is entitled "James F. Brown and the Informal Politics of Association." It draws on Brown’s writings to tell his story and discuss how through his participation in the voluntary associations that de Tocqueville found so characteristic of American democracy,  Brown expressed his political citizenship and help define the status of freedom in the emerging national civic sphere of the early nineteenth century.  Freedom of association and the status of civil society remain live civil rights issues in the twenty-first century.

On Monday afternoon, January 17 at 1:30pm, the Library presents its MLK Day program for school-age children and their families, featuring actor and dramatist Michael Monasterial, who has researched and portrayed James F. Brown at Mount Gulian, and presents eye-opening stories of slavery and African American life in the Hudson Valley.  Monasterial is the founder and artistic director of Passing the Torch Through Hearts, a diverse arts organization in Beacon dedicated to using theater and performing arts to educate and inspire Hudson Valley youth and support positive social change. 

Joining Monasterial will be musicians and recording artists Gwen Laster and Art Labriola.  Storyteller Jonathan Kruk will emcee.

The 2011 MLK Day program is made possible with generous support from the Friends of Desmond-Fish Library.


Michael Monasterial

Both the January 16 and January 17 programs are free and open to the public.  For more information, contact the Library at 845-424-3020 or email Library director Carol Donick at  donick@highlands.com.

Gwen Laster

Art Labriola

For further media information or interviews, contact Stephen Kent, skent@kentcom.com, 914-589-5988.

“SAM COOKE:   WHERE YOU BEEN BABY”
A HIT MUSICAL BY MICHAEL MONASTERIAL

The Reviewers hail…..
“…..Riveting!!!!  "....”the best performance and cast north of broadway!!!”    
Times Herald Record, Hudson Valley Press 

A twenty-five-year theater veteran, Michael Monasterial is more than a “triple threat”: he is an actor, writer, director, producer, educator, builder, and visionary.  Michael studied acting and playwriting at the renowned HB Studio on Bank Street under the tutelage of such notables as Earl Hyman (Cosby Show); Bill Hickey (Prizzy’s Honor) and Paul Cooper Freeman (HBO’s “Oz”).  He also practiced at Frank Silvera’s “Writer’s Workshop” alongside Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) and under the guidance of Esther Rolle (“Good Times”).  In the mid 1980’s, Michael co-founded  “The Three Brothers Theater” with Keith Hamilton Cobb (“Andromeda”; “All My Children”) and Wendell Watts (NY Daily News).  The very popular theater ensemble toured youth centers and colleges throughout the mid-Hudson valley to raise money in support of children’s organizations.  Michael’s film credits include the box office hit “Changing Lanes” with Samuel L. Jackson.

As the founder and Principle Director/Actor of Passing the Torch Through The Arts, Inc., Michael writes, directs and performs various productions through this outreach program with a mission to bring fine plays, such as “Sam Cooke:  Where You Been Baby,  to audiences that otherwise, could never have access to live theater. Michael offers workshops in acting principles and techniques to individuals and groups, and integrates the theater arts into various core K-12 academic curricula for area schools and non-profit organizations. 

“SAM COOKE:   WHERE YOU BEEN BABY”
By Michael Monasterial
Directed by Esther Taylor-Evans
Chorography by Abby Lappen
Produced by Passing the Torch Through the Arts

Audiences keep coming back for more!!! “Sam Cooke….” is being presented to SRO  houses with standing ovations throughout the northeast and is being developed for a 2011 national tour.  Come enjoy this multi-talented cast as they take you on a journey that will have you laughing, crying, singing and dancing to the life, times and greatest hits of the legendary vocal sensation!

A new musical production that is educational theater at its finest! This American pop fable illuminates the life and musical genius of a true original. The pop singer who wrote, performed and produced 24 Billboard hits over his 8 years at the top of the charts was also a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement and an inventor of musical styles that are still incorporated in pop and gospel music 50 years later.

Sam Cooke's early years in Mississippi, his rise to fame and his demons that ultimately lead to his untimely demise are explored in this drama, but it is well seasoned with humor, pathos and most of all great, great music.

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby" stars Evelyn Clarke, Sabrina Kershaw, Stephen M. Jones, Kitt Potter, Dennis Washington and Mr. Michael Monasterial as Sam Cooke.  

”All the members possess strong voices, and as the Soul Stirrers who formed Cooke's group, contribute mightily to this powerful review.”  Times Herald Record, August 2010

“ ….Theater as a church revival…both heartfelt tribute and cautionary tale…no denying how much the audience enjoyed it!”  Mid Hudson Valley Theater Blog May 2010

The New York Theatre Wire
"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?"
Reviewed July 24, 2010 by Larry Litt

If you think race relations in America have changed for the better, think again. The Tea Party, FOX News, prison populations and Arizona's new draconian immigration laws are proofs there's a still long way to go. Yes we have an African-American President, but by most people's standards he's more Ivy League white lawyer than black soul brother.

What would Sam Cooke, the greatest American crossover rock and roll singer, think about our world? Perhaps the answer lies in a review by Michael Monasterial, "Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" now playing at the Woodstock Community Theater. Monasterial's musical uses karaoke techniques to get the music right along with actual singing by the multi-talented cast.

Since Sam Cooke's music covers both gospel and popular genres the cast had to tell his life story in two worlds. Sabrina Kershaw as Cooke's boyhood girlfriend, then second wife, then ex-wife then urban prostitute goes from innocence to calculated crass cunning in a range rarely seen in a musical. Her vocals, dance moves and fast lipped character changes make her a mini-one woman show in this production.

Evelyn Clarke tells Cooke's story through the eyes of his loving but skeptical and religious grandmother. Her warnings set the stage for the biography of artistic struggle, greatness and eventual personal defeat. She could be Elvis Presley's Maw-Maw, or Crazy Heart or The Wrestler. It's a familiar warning, "Artist Beware, Family and Art aren't Natural Lovers. It takes something more to hold your Family together." Ms Clarke is gentle, singing gospel, firm in family, adding humanity and wisdom to the show.

The spiritual gospel world of Sam Cooke is embodied in Dennis Washington. Mr Washington's commanding singing voice casts a spell of divine goodness when Cooke is surrounded by deceit and self-destruction. For all Cooke's desires to overcome the racial barriers of the 1950s and 60s, he couldn't overcome the challenge that fame and fortune bring to many talented artists. Giving in to temptations of the flesh inevitably lead to destruction of the center of family life. Monasterial's use of gospel music as a counterpoint offers us transformational moments. We enter the church, needing simplicity, honesty and guidance after all the media celebrity. This spiritual leitmotif had the audience clapping hands and singing along with charismatic the Mr. Washington. Artist's father figures are always a problem in dramas. From The Jazz Singer onwards, fathers have wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps. Stephen M. Jones creates Cooke's father as a stubborn, willful church man who passes on his personality and love of music. Sam is meant for the big time. Papa sees the end as does everyone. Can a father prevent disaster? Can anyone? Jones also slyly plays Barry Gordy of Motown Records fame as an insidious, dominating gangster in a meeting that would predestine the rest of Cooke's story. I was riveted in this moment of intense machismo from both Monasterial as Cooke and Jones. Sam Cooke is a difficult representation of American history. He walked the walk of civil rights, but lived the life of a fabulously successful rock and roller. Michael Monasterial brings him to life as a conflicted man with both chain gangs and dancing the twist in his heart. We're led to think perhaps Cooke would be alive today if he'd just played ball with Motown as so many others did.

But Monasterial knows better than that. Cooke couldn't take the time to look over his shoulder, figure out the consequences of his actions, decide what was better for him and his family. He was on his way to heights never achieved by a black singer in America. His story and martyrdom are America's civil rights tragedy. It's looks as if change came to America, but has it really?

With minimal sets and lighting, Esther Taylor-Evans created changes in sets and time with costumes and the cast's individual body language. She proves once again that a big budget isn't needed for a play to be satisfying. In the finale, Monasterial's Cooke sings and dances his way into the audiences heart, the place Sam Cooke will remain forever. This show is riveting though some of the biographical facts are played for dramatic effect. Monasterial is a playwright with a mission to educate America about race relations through music. It's worth learning the lesson.


OFFICIAL SAM COOKE DAY IN HUDSON!


"Sam Cooke plays to full house and receives standing ovation in Rosendale May 22, 2010!"

A Hot Night in Rosendale

ROSENDALE, NY--By the end of Michael Monasterial's one-act musical drama Sam Cooke—Where You Been Baby?, the audience was up on its feet and “Twistin' the Night Away” to a wailing sax and an exhorting vocalist.  It was theater as church revival—a punctuation to the career of a preacher's son turned R&B legend.

But oh, what a winding road to get there.

This past Saturday, Passing the Torch Through the Arts offered Sam Cooke, directed by Gordon W. Brown and a 30 minute excerpt from The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, directed by Ron Morehead at Rosendale Theatre.  An unlikely pairing, but one held together by fine acting throughout.

Monasterial starred as Cooke, with a cadre of Candi Sterling, Steven Jones and Evelyn Clarke playing a multitude of roles.  The play begins with Cooke's death at the hands of a manager of a seedy Hollywood hotel and works its way back to Cooke's humble beginnings as a minister's son, sneaking out of Church choir to dream of a more exciting life.  Cooke's platitude spouting grandmother (Evelyn Clarke) joins him and the audience for the narrative ride, acting as his conscience in an apron.  Along the way Cooke comes up against his father's judgment, an ill-fated marriage to his childhood sweetheart and the threat of Motown Records, the closest thing there was to mafia to aspiring black artists in the early sixties.  He also faces his own destructive behavior.

But there is also success, mostly in the form of performances of Cooke's hits by Monasterial.  In the music seemed to be all the joy of the man, and Monasterial captures that essence well.  In well-choreographed numbers by Abby Lappen, he performs “You Send Me”, “Chain Gang”, “Wonderful World” and a host of others with a showman's flair.  Monasterial's portrait of the man is sympathetic.  Cooke comes across as a well-meaning, somewhat innocent dreamer.  His grandmother's line, “By the time you know what this world is about, you'll wish you didn't” seems apt.  There is another side to this man that is grazed upon in his dealings with Berry Gordy of Motown—Monasterial shows a man in full, capable and strong and willing to defend himself.  But even when he abashedly explains his scandalous murder to his Nanna in a touching scene, you see the results of his demons and not the demons themselves. 

Evelyn Clarke as Nanna was a crowd favorite as the voice of experience in Cooke's life.  Her touching mixture of tenderness and rebuke fit the part wonderfully and gave the play most of its soul.  Candi Sterling, playing everything from Cooke's wife to his prostitute, ably fit every character she tackled.  Her portrayal of the wife's arc, from wide-eyed country girlfriend to scared, wounded spouse was particularly riveting. Dennis Washington added his wonderful voice to the proceedings, leading the choir as a gospel counterpoint to Cooke's pop songs.  Bruce Berky added that great sax and handled sound, while Clarke and Esther Taylor-Evans shared a co-writing credit.

Some of the show's best acting was provided by Stephen Jones.  As Cooke's unforgiving father he had the gravity of a man bent on pointing his son toward the straight and narrow, as Gordy he was all smiling malevolence, and as a gushing teenage fan dancing along to Cooke's music he almost stole the show.  Whatever Jones portrayed, he committed to it and pulled it off with dignity. 

Gordon W. Brown's direction of the show was tight, moving the action along nicely and revealing character along the way.  One bit, where Cooke's then-girlfriend grabs money out of his hand before accepting his proposal, got a round of applause from the audience—that's about as effective as direction gets!  Monasterial wrote Cooke talking directly to the audience to set up scenes, which is less effective, since many of the scenes would stand on their own without introduction.  There was also a looseness to the performance that in its best moments led to a direct connection with the audience, and at its worst indicated that another week of rehearsal was warranted.  Some of the key moments in the play just miss because of this lack of precision.  However, on the whole the play comes across as both heartfelt tribute and cautionary tale, and there was no denying how much the audience enjoyed it.

The Vagina Monologues, staged simply with three actresses sitting in chairs facing the audience, was a wonderful blend of terrific acting and subtle direction by Ron Morehead.  Johanna Tacadena, Dana Lockhart and Laurie Dichiara each performed one of the monologues, and their passion and talent was beautiful balanced.  Tacadena's sweet, soulful performance of an inexperienced woman was offset by Dichiara's venerable, yet wounded portrayal of an older lady whose time has passed.  Lockhart strikes the chord in her direct, no-nonsense brush with a sexist, controlling husband in “Hair”.  This show will be reprised at Arts Society of Kingston in June, and if the sneak peek is any indication it should not be missed.

Brian Petti 5/25/10


Soul food
By Michael Eck

No one, no one, had a voice like Sam Cooke.

From 1947 to 1964, Cooke -- a former gospel singer -- sent almost 30 songs to the Top 40 charts, including indelible classics like "You Send Me," "Chain Gang," "Wonderful World," "Bring It On Home To Me" and the posthumously released "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Cooke not only pioneered soul music, he was also one of the first artists of his era -- a particularly daring feat for an African- American artist of his era -- to tackle the business end of music, going so far as to start his own label, SAR, in 1961.

ooke died under still-contested circumstances in December 1964: He was shot and struck with a broom handle by a motel manager who claimed he was attacking her. Playwright/performer Michael Monasterial confronts all of these aspects of Cooke in his new play, "Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?"

The show, which was developed in Beacon and has been performed a few times in the Hudson Valley, will make its Capital Region premiere this weekend at The Sanctuary for Independent Media.

Monasterial -- who works construction by day -- has long been involved in creating theater with a message.

His troupe, Passing the Torch Through the Arts, has assayed historic characters before, with shows like "King & Kennedy" and "Harry Belafonte: Hear the Music."

He says Cooke's music inspired him when he first heard it on his parents' stereo as a child.

Monasterial will play Cooke in the show, leading a four-person cast, including a live saxophonist. While the horn may be real, Monasterial admits that economics force him to sing Cooke's classics songs to tracks.

He says Cooke's life, with its stark up and downs, is "great fodder for a drama," but he is adamant about the fact that his show "is not just another black play."

"It's about a genius. What he left in a short amount of time is incredible."

Monasterial says his research for "Where You Been Baby?" included poring over a number of biographies, including Peter Guralnick's definitive "Dream Boogie."

But he also found the few filmed Cooke interviews he could, and says that much of the character was shaped by those images.

"I get a lot from interviews, and even just from photographs. I study the way someone talks, not just what they say. The way they laugh, the way they turn their head."

Musical biographies have become a popular item for both film and stage, but they have their pitfalls. It's not uncommon for the investigations and interpretations to turn dark, focusing on the drugs and nightlife so endemic to the trade.

Monasterial says he doesn't shy away from the fact that Cooke died controversially, with allegations of attempted rape, of consorting with a prostitute and of a bizarre murder conspiracy.

But he did want to avoid the kind of lurid portraits made of jazz legends like Billie Holiday and Dexter Gordon.

"I wanted to do a deeper profile than the scandal notes a la 'Bird,'" (the 1988 Clint-Eastwood-directed film about saxophonist Charlie Parker).

"What I try to do with this story is show the real Sam, how he grew up in the church, what influenced him, the things he saw and heard as a kid, and when he got older, the good and bad choices he made. I wanted to present a balanced story."

Michael Eck is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.


October 13th, 2010

Mount Gulian to host living history

click the title to read the article

Ex-slave's story to be told on Mount Gulian stage

Jennifer L. Warren • For the Poughkeepsie Journal • September 5, 2010

This fall and winter, the reconstructed 18th-century Dutch Manor house, in the town, will provide the stage for the first Concept Living History series.

From Oct. 10 through Feb. 5, guests will have the opportunity to witness history come alive. Two pivotal figures in the site's history — James F. Brown and Mary Anna Verplanck — who inhabited the Gulian home, will be recreated by local actors. Think Colonial Williamsburg with a local slant.

Brown, born in 1793, was an escaped slave whose freedom was purchased by the Verplancks. He lived in Mount Gulian for 40 years (1829-1869), recording a journal during his stay. Contents of that journal, now owned by Mount Gulian, will be part of the re-enactment script. Other intriguing tidbits have been included, in the two 30-minute episodes.

"Brown had a real love of the earth and gardens; it's something I too share, assisting in me becoming this person," said Beacon-based actor Michael Monasterial, who will portray Brown. "I really love doing historical drama, immersing myself in that person's life. Seeing this stuff live is really the best way to learn history, as it's very transformative — educational as well as fun."

Another Hudson Valley resident, actress Jean Moss, will portray Verplanck. Also born in 1793, Verplanck was the mistress of the house who never married. Brown worked for her.

"The stories we're choosing to tell are about typically disenfranchised people, a woman and an African American, who had fulfilling and rather influential lives, and whose stories have remained largely untold till now," said drama veteran Joanne Zipay, the writer and director of the re-enactment script. "There's no better way than this to bring history to life, to make it exciting for adults and children alike."

The event is made possible, thanks to a $106,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. The money covers the in-depth research and a video project to follow the final performance.

The undertaking, whose rehearsals commence this month, has taken three years to bring to life. All those involved in its creation are hopeful the site's rich history, along with the interactive nature of the event, will grab audiences.

"I'm looking forward to seeing it come to life after several years of dreaming in preparation for this day," Zipay said. "I think this has the potential to be not only a unique local attraction, but to bring history lovers from around the world to our area."

For more information on the performances and the local historic site, visit www.mountgulian.org or call 845-831-8172.


Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby
Interview with Michael Monasterial - KZE Radio

Monasterial's Cooke Rocks Woodstock!!

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" is billed as a rock 'n' roll/gospel musical based on the short life of the pop singer who fused the two traditions into a new sound of soul music. Written by Michael Monasterial, who also stars as Cooke in the play, the presentation was staged the past two weekends at the Woodstock Community Center by his group, Passing the Torch Through the Arts, and the Haitian People's Support Project. It's directed by Esther Taylor-Evans, with music by saxophonist Bruce Berky and choreography by Abby Lappen...

click here to read the full article


Howland Cultural Center festival showcases emerging playwrights in valley

Journal staff • August 13, 2010

BEACON — The Howland Cultural Center and Passing the Torch Through the Arts will present the inaugural Educational Theater Festival from 4 to 9 p.m. Aug. 28 at the center.

The festival will showcase three plays by new and emerging playwrights in the Hudson Valley.
At 4 p.m., "Memory" by Dianna Fefas will be presented.

In the play, a woman visits her friend, who has just returned from the hospital after struggling with cancer. Though they have known each other for 20 years, this is the first time they speak honestly with one another about a variety of issues, especially the meaning of life.
"The Finest of the Finest" by Carol Elkins will be produced at 6 p.m. Set in New York City between 1911 and 1918, the story focuses on Mary Sullivan, the first female police officer in the New York City Police Department. The play follows Sullivan as she wins over her male co-workers, brings criminals to justice and tends to the needs of her mother and young daughter.

"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" will be staged at 8 p.m.

"Sam Cooke," written by Michael Monasterial, is a pop fable that illuminates the life and musical genius of an American original.
The pop singer who wrote, performed and produced 24 Billboard hits during his eight years at the top of the charts was also a pioneer in the civil rights movement and an inventor of musical styles that are still incorporated in pop and gospel music 50 years later.

Cooke's early years in Mississippi, his rise to fame and the demons that led to his untimely demise are explored in this production.
"Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" is directed by Esther Taylor-Evans. The production stage manager is Patricia Gallio, with music by Bruce Berky and choreography by Abby Lappen.

It stars Sabrina Kershaw, Stephen M. Jones, Evelyn Clarke, Dennis Washington and Monasterial as Sam Cooke.
There is a suggested donation of $10 for the festival. Students are free.
The festival is a joint fundraiser for Passing the Torch and Howland.
Howland is at 477 Main St. in Beacon.


July 14th 2010 - Interview with Michael Monasterial by BE THE CHANGE Radio

New York Theater Wire Review - by Lary Lit

"What would Sam Cooke, the greatest American crossover rock and roll singer, think about our world? Perhaps the answer lies in a review by Michael Monasterial, "Sam Cooke: Where You Been Baby?" now playing at the Woodstock Community Theater. Monasterial's musical uses karaoke techniques to get the music right along with actual singing by the multi-talented cast..."

click here to read the full review


Check out the great press!!

Group plans green expo

The idea — like all good ideas — is quite simple: The science of art and the art of science will work together to forge a greener tomorrow.

That’s the premise of Passing the Torch through the Arts as it devises its fundraising for 2010 by sponsoring a science-based project that will embrace all aspects of the community. Passing the Torch is a multi-cultural professional theater company, dedicated to education and social change whose programming is designed to serve at-risk youth in innovative and interactive theater projects.

For more of this story, click here


Grass Root Teen Group presents program with newly created DVD for Alcohol Awareness

photo credits: Mid Hudson News


Passing the Torch Through the Arts
WAMC Interview - "Finding Out" 
July 26th, 2009
© Copyright 2009, WAMC

...from the TIMES HERALD RECORD, published August 14th, 2009

Passing The Torch Through The Arts is producing two very thought provoking plays at the historic Howland Center in Beacon. Both one act dramas are written by Michael Monasterial and both are directed by Brian Petti.

The first play is an adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird”.  Four adept performers handled the many roles called for in this drama. The tale is told in flashback by Scout (Christa Trinler) as she gives an eyewitness account of her father’s legal defense of a black man wrongfully accused of attacking a white woman in 1935 Alabama. Trinler is genuine throughout but sometimes her Southern accent falters.  Michael Monasterial has the intriguing task of playing both white and black characters as well the two main characters at the trial:  Tom Robinson the accused and Bob Ewell the father of the accuser. This is a fascinating feat to watch.  Johanna Tacadena has the daunting task of playing both male and female characters, which she does with great skill. Ron Morehead portrays Atticus Scout’s father and Tom’s lawyer with proficiency and cordiality.

Monasterial choice of using merely four performers suited the piece well except at times (i.e. the trial scene) where one more male could have lessened the musical chairs effect of actors changing characters in the same scene. Monasterial cleverly maintains the story and the dramatic message within an hour time frame.

The other piece entitled “Hear The Music – The Story of Harry Belafonte” could be called a musical. All the music which is accompanied on guitar by Terry Weaver and sung by the three performers Mary Ellen Petti, Johanna Tacadena and Michael Monasterial are well known hits by Mr. Belafonte. The piece is  an homage to Mr. Belefonte’s many “battles” during his career beginning as Gang Member, Soldier, Singer, Actor, Civil Rights Activist and Humanitarian. Once again Monasterial uses a small cast (Tacadena and Petti) to portray a myriad of characters (most of them well known). He portrays the man himself. Tacadena and Petti do a grand job of accents and impersonations (some dead on). Monasterial is no slouch himself in both mannerisms and singing.

Director Petti has brought a top notch cast of performers together for both pieces penned by a talented Monasterial. The Howland Center poses some challenges for live theater but these performers could easily display their talents in a barn and still please.


Exclusive Interview on WAMC!

"The Roundtable" with Sarah LaDuke

Featuring: Passing the Torch Through the Arts Founder and Artistic Director Michael Monasterial!

Airs Thursday, August 13, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m

Triple Threat Man On Board For Turbulent Voyage
(by Paul Cooper of the Kingston Temple)

His name is Michael Monasterial, and he’s actually more than a triple threat man: He’s an actor, writer, director, producer, educator, builder, and visionary;  and one – just one -- of his many jobs is producing Paul Cooper ‘s Turbulent Voyage, ASK’s Quadricentennial play, which will be performed at the Art Society of Kingston the last weekend of September, and the first weekend in October.

At the same time, he’s directing and performing in Passing The Torch Through The Arts, an outreach program one of whose missions is to bring fine plays – such as To Kill a Mocking Bird – to young audiences who would otherwise never get the chance to see them. The program also runs a new Playwright’s Workshop in Beacon. Monasterial’s motto is “Theater + Education + Positive Action = Social Change,” and this charismatic man makes you believe in it all.

A Board Member in The Art Society of Kingston, Monasterial enjoys helping out with the drama effort. “These guys are trying to build something,” he says, “and I am, too. I can learn from them.”

Monasterial’s contribution to Turbulent Voyage is to design and build the platforms, hang and wire the lights, and provide a myriad of other resources – all this while attending to the demands of other theatrical ventures.

Not all the stars appear on stage.


"Program Fosters Education Through Theater"
by Edward Meisel, Poughkeepsie Journal
August 6th, 2009

click the title to read the full article



Play Explores the Price of Fame
Hudson Valley Press article about upcoming production of NOBODY
click the title to read the full article

From Buzzine Magazine...

Taking it Back to the Theatre
On the east coast, another summertime trip out to the Hamptons or the Jersey Shore might be convenient and tempting, but don’t disregard the region north of Westchester where one company is keeping theatre on fire in the Hudson Valley. Here, every performance is an eye-opening night.

So forget the MTA trains or the Greyhound bus. Taking Doc’s time machine right back to the theatre is a much more exciting excursion, so gear up for some time travel. Since examining cultural shifts via the arts is essential to understanding our blue-green world, Kingston, NY, home base for Passing the Torch Through the Arts is an ideal starting point.

This theatre company is constantly taking audiences on a trip and the best news is there are many places to go.

Hopping briefly back to ancient Rome, we know that the Pax Romana (aka the Roman Peace) lasted for about two hundred years. Compare that to our distinctly varied decades of the twentieth century that have been defined by milestone events that inspired everything from movies to movements to Billy Joel songs.  Pop culture would certainly be running on less fuel without historic moments like Pearl Harbor, the tragedy of the Titanic and the free spirited Woodstock Festival. Let us not forget the Madonna-esque 80s and the grunge-inspired 90s when having a beeper was actually cool.

Getting up to speed with the twenty first century, it’s impossible not to notice that most adept at streamlining the times are the New York City’s talented DJs. These sound media masters manage to blaze through history musically to deliver everything from Prince to Lady Gaga all in one remix.  

Riding the new millennium wave is Passing the Torch Through the Arts by mixing history and dramatic scripts to create educational theatre that is both culturally significant and entertaining. On an unwavering mission, they are a “culturally diverse, community based theater company, dedicated to education and social change.”

Under the direction and leadership of producer, actor and playwright Michael Monesterial, the company hit the ground running with shows in 2000. Since then, they have developed a strong presence in the Mid-Hudson Valley turning up at numerous performance venues. With shows that pack a potent intellectual punch, their selected material speaks to the youth, community and generations that have seen the nation go through many social, political and economic shifts.

In 2009, they have already made a notable impression with their work. Their recent shows include a mind-altering presentation of original play King and Kennedy staring the playwright himself Michael Monesterial and regional actors Brett Owen and Soyal Smalls. The show depicted a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK prior to both assassinations. Ms. Smalls played a particularly intimidating and troubled Coretta Scott King in a production that held much appeal to contemporary audiences.

But this is only the beginning since it seems as though the altruistic mission of those who dedicate their lives to making positive change is never done. After all, saving the Union (a bunch of times) took some effort, as did freeing the slaves (that only happened once) and securing the right for females to vote. Luckily, the right of the people to (peaceably) assemble remains guaranteed by the US constitution. However, it seems that while the masses are gathered, there is no harm in providing a bit of educational entertainment to move whatever the event along.

Answering this call is Passing the Torch as they have also recently produced an adaptation of the literary classic “Of Mice and Men.” Currently in the works are “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and a Harry Bellefonte biographical piece. July 2009 opens with a play called “Nobody, the Life of Bert Williams” and an ongoing New Playwrights Lab in Beacon, NY at the Howland Cultural Center. With so much going on, it would be wise to check out passingthetorchthroughthearts.com to avoid being left out of the loop.

Speaking of time loops, while heading back to the future from 1985 is a little out of the question, at least you can swing back to the past by passing through the theatre. For all the Sci-Fi junkies out there, you won’t even need a flux capacitor for this trip.

Candi Sterling
Journalist + Actor + Director
New YorkArts, Culture & Green Lifestyle
www.candisterling.com


Lenny & George, Meet Martin & Jack
click the title to read the full article


KING AND KENNEDY (click the titles to read the full articles)


A Letter Re: SUNY New Paltz Visit on Monday, February 16th

Dear Michael:

Grateful thanks for bringing your energetic and intelligent theatre group to my class, "Introduction to Theatre" on Monday, February 16th. As guest lecturers and performers, you presented a program that was coherent, edifying and entertaining. Your play about Dr. King and JFK was filled with humor, pathos and an historical sensibility that was both accurate and appealing. The employment of color-blind casting and conceptual presentation was important me as a theatre educator interested in illuminating ways for college students to "experience" theatre in the realities of the 21st century.

In that regard I could see that my 140 students, a microcosm of the racially and ethnically diverse campus population, were intrigued, more than a little, by the passion and commitment present in McKenna Theatre.

What wonderful support you received from "two" of our own: Brett Owen, whose performance as JFK and others was exceptional, and Soyal Smalls whose brief appearance as Coretta Scott King, gave the proceedings a touch of gentility.

I am grateful to "Passing the Torch Through Arts" for their participation in my class.

Stephen S. Kitsakos, Lecturer
Theatre Studies
Department of Theatre Arts
School of Fine & Performing Arts


A RAISIN IN THE SUN (click the titles to read the full articles)

Community Theatre Makes a Connection
Posted by angchronicles on May 13, 2008

From book to stage and screen that’s what has been capturing me in the artful world of literature. When “Color Purple” hit Broadway I was determined to see the show, before it ended like a “Raisin in the Sun” and I had to revel in other people’s reviews. During the last week of “the purple” production, I was fascinated and captivated. Brilliant scenery, excellent vocals and dazzling dances. I loved it! Of course, without the original ending when Shugs makes amends with her father — earthly and heavenly the spiritual context of the color purple was lost.

Although I missed Lorraine Hansberry’s original 1958 production of “A Raisin in the Sun” and the Broadway show featuring Phylisha Rashad, I did read the book in high school and watch PBS adaption of the play starring Danny Glover and the 1961film starring Sidney Poitier. However, the most recent theater debut, produced by Passing the Torch Through the Arts and performed at Dutchess Community College in celebration of Black History Month, added depth and meaning to Hansberry’s Tony-award winning play that I had not garnered from my high school reading or the film adaption.

Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” inspired Hansberry to write “A Raisin in the Sun.”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Hansberry also wrote this play, then, so white America could see blacks in other roles besides housekeepers and minstrels. After connecting the play to the poem, now, as a black woman, mother, parent, wife, and daughter I see people of all races, creeds and colors, who have experienced their dreams dry up in the sun as they make a decision to run or despite the sagging load carry on.


RECIDIVISM and WHEN THE CHICKENS CAME HOME TO ROOST (click the title to read the full article)

From the Kingston Freeman
By Bonnie Langston

Michael Monasterial, a Kingston man who says theater saved his life, is on a mission.
His mission is, at least figuratively, to help save the lives of at-risk youths through the arts.

"If I can get them young enough...," Monasterial said. "I'd like to show them there is a higher path."

He hopes two one-act plays, "Recidivism," which he wrote, and "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost," by Laurence Holder, will help lead the way. Both debut Wednesday, the first in a string of evening performances at The Arts Society of Kingston, 97 Broadway, in the city's Rondout district.

Town of Ulster resident Bruce Grund is co-producer and director of both works, and Monasterial will play lead roles in each. The casts are multi-racial, range in age from 17 to 50 and incorporate veterans and novice actors, most of them local.

The first play portrays the struggles of a father and son who meet in a holding cell in a county jail, and the second frames the historic confrontation between Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed. Both plays, Monasterial said, celebrate positive action and provide a message of hope.

Their presentation, he said, is a "coming out party" for a fledgling project under the umbrella of Passing the Torch, Through the Arts, a new multi-ethnic theater company dedicated to education and social change. Monasterial, the artistic director, envisions after-school theater programs that take place in two-month cycles in which young people take part in every element of presentation - writing, acting, producing, creating scenery and more. In so doing, he said, participants will learn cooperation, leadership and other life skills that transfer well to the world of work.

The 44-year-old Bronx-born Monasterial, a carpenter and contractor, said he is an example of how that concept operates. As a youth, his lifestyle wasn't working well. He hung out with "bad kids" in Yonkers where his family moved when he was 13. He recalls living in a "crazy" environment as a black kid in a white neighborhood where his "personal trauma" included molestation, being chased by mobs, not to mention exposure to fire-bombings across the street.

It was recognition and encouragement by his music teacher, the only African-American instructor at Roosevelt High School at the time, that led Monasterial to alter the destructive path he had been following. She told him he was a "natural" for the ninth grade's rendition of "The Music Man," and suggested he try out. He auditioned and he got the lead.

"That was my start in theater," Monasterial said, "and I loved it."

In fact, at 16, he landed a role Off-Broadway with the New Rochelle Children's Repertory Company in "The Runaways," at the Lion Theater on 42nd Street on Theater Row in New York City, followed by performance in "The Me Nobody Knows." Later, while at Westchester County Community College, Monasterial and friends started the Three Brothers Theater, which played to audiences in a variety of universities.

"Like most theaters," Monasterial said, "there wasn't a lot of money in it, but it was a lot of fun. That's where I developed my craft. I did a lot of writing, a lot of acting, built sets. We did everything."

He wants a similar experience for area youths who take part in his aptly named program, Passing the Torch, Through the Arts. He said he saw the need for such a program on his recent return to the area where a decade earlier he had served as student-government president at Ulster County Community College in Stone Ridge.

"I was surprised by the crime rate within the youth population in the city of Kingston," he said, including racially motivated crimes. "So many young people are going to jail. That's what I expect from the Bronx, downtown Yonkers. I was surprised at how bad it was in Kingston."

Monasterial said he is dedicating his life to making positive changes, not only for at-risk, underprivileged youth, but also for his daughter Maya, who will turn 6 on Oct. 24.

"I don't want her to go through the same things I went through," he said.

When Monasterial, a board member and volunteer at the Arts Society of Kingston, learned of Grund's plans to present and direct "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost" at the space, he saw a great opportunity.

"He said he had written a play called 'Recitivism.' Could I take a look at it?" Grund said.

He said Monasterial's plan works well with his own agenda: to help break down "cultural apartheid" in Kingston. The plays presented together, Grund said, in a multi-cultural neighborhood could ease the way.

Like Monasterial, Grund has seen the theatrical experience heal youth who are struggling, including those in what was once called the Division for Youth in Highland where he worked mostly in theater during the 1980s and much of the following decade. He recalled the cast of incarcerated youth in "An Evening with Langston Hughes" and the accolades they received.

"Here they were, getting applauded for doing something positive for the first time in their lives," Grund said. "It was amazing."

It gives him hope for Monasterial's project.

"I like Mike's concept, which is part of the reason we joined forces," he said. "I believe that all art is potentially transforming."

Monasterial has seen that transformation in others as well. "Recitivism" was first performed at the Westchester County Correctional Facility in Valhalla six years ago where it met with "thundering" applause and standing ovations, said Monasterial.

"It's not a preachy play," he said. "The events are based on real situations."

Meanwhile, as Monasterial, Grund, additional actors and personnel practice the play and the Holder piece about Malcolm X, rehearsals also are underway for the February production of "A Raisin in the Sun," meant as a celebration of African American History Month. Candi Sterling, an Ulster County resident and theater major at SUNY New Paltz, will direct.

The show will play three weekends at the Arts Society of Kingston. Then it will tour the Hudson Valley with performances scheduled so far at Bailey and Miller middle schools in the Kingston educational system and Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie.

By the spring of next year, Monasterial hopes to tour yet another performance piece, a gospel musical for which he is writing the book and lyrics. That tour, he hopes will attract youth ministries in churches as well as other venues.

Meanwhile, he plans to take "Recidivism" to Phoenix House, a substance abuse treatment and prevention center in Westchester County during the first week of November. Napanoch prison in Ellenville is another possible site for a future performance, he said.

For now, though, much of Monasterial's focus is on youth. They will have a presence when "Recidivism" and "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost" kick off Wednesday at Arts Society of Kingston, he said, thanks to several area businesses that are lending financial support to the effort. They have made attendance possible for at least 100 youngsters from the Boys and Girls club and 50 youths from the Everette Hodge Center, both in Kingston. Family of Woodstock received 50 tickets to disperse to young people as well.

Monasterial hopes the upcoming performances will draw a large and culturally varied adult audience, too, an audience in tune with the goals of his broader program. He said good turnouts also will increase the likelihood that the arts society will welcome return performances by his company as well as its teaching component.

A continued presence seems likely anyway if others are in agreement with Richard Wixom, a fellow society board member. He and Monasterial have worked many weekends renovating the organization's second floor, reconfiguring the space that has a small stage.

Wixom said Monasterial is a "charismatic" man and a hard worker who is doing important work not only theatrically but also in community outreach.

"We are very, very happy to have him as part of the Arts Society," he said, "and we look forward to more productions in the future."

Monasterial said he is grateful for the society's support, but he also said he hopes someday his company will have its own space.

"If somebody could donate a barn shell, we could make it a theater. You can put that down," he told a reporter. "It could be anywhere."

Monasterial applauds sports and other positive avenues for youth, but he said theater is yet another option, one he is excited about offering to the youth of Kingston. Through the medium, he said, a young person headed down the wrong path can turn heel and change his or her destiny.

He said, "You can say, 'From now on, for the rest of my life, this is what my path is going to be.'"


From ROLL Magazine

Breaking Through the Cultural Apartheid
by Jay Blotcher

Ulster County residents Bruce Grund, 79 and Michael Monasterial, 44, come from different worlds, but their love of theater and belief in its capacity for social change links them. After meeting initially at a Tuesday night workshop for playwrights at Art Society of Kingston on the Rondout, their ongoing discussions resulted in a partnership between their respective production companies, Grund's Apocalypse Productions and Monasterial's Passing the Torch through Arts.

The new hybrid has already borne fruit: a pair of socially explosive plays which will play nine times throughout the month of October at The Art Society of Kingston: When the Chickens Come Home to Roost and Recidivism, both directed by Grund.

When the Chickens Come Home to Roost concerns the symbiotic and later contentious relationship between civil rights leader Malcolm X and his mentor Elijah Mohammed which led to X's assassination in 1965. In this Lawrence Holder play, Monasterial plays Malcolm X opposite Stephen M. Jones as the imperious leader of the American Muslim movement.

Recidivism is a play written by Monasterial. The coldly technical word, known to correctional officers and social behaviorologists, refers to incarcerated people who upon release, eventually slip back into crime. In this one-act, a father and son confront the social patterns and personal demons that caused their troubles. Recidivism stars local actors Keith Bullock, Joel Yimbo Jr., Ricky Cannon, Tom Andriello and Jalon Jones.

The two plays are linked by many themes concerning African-American life and a legacy of injustice. Yet more simply, both plays deal with the primal dynamic between a father and his son, whether biological as in Recidivism or spiritual as in Chickens. Veteran director Grund had a clear impetus for bringing these plays to ASK"I really believe that racism is alive and well in this country -- and that includes Kingston," Grund said. These plays address the poisonous effects of racism, but also depict black lives, still an infrequent occurrence in local theater, Grund said.
"The ASK building stands across from two low-income housing projects," Grund said. "Young and old people of color pass ASK ten times a day and will not come in." By staging Chickens and Recidivism, Grund not only hopes to change the ASK audience dynamic, but also to provide inspiration to local youths.

"There is relevance [in Chickens] for today's audience," Grund said. He points out that Malcolm Little began his life not as an inspirational leader to millions, but as a petty criminal known as Detroit Red. "He was selling crack, pimping, robbing houses, and he turned himself around."

Bruce Grund has always believed that theater could change minds. That is why he has mounted shows wherever he can, whether on the stage of a small hole in the wall, or in the streets. [Most recently, he collaborated on the ImpeachMobile which participated in the Artists Soap Box Derby in Kingston.] For many years, Grund toiled in downtown New York City among fellow freedom fighters and unabashed old-school lefties. His early resume includes work with Bread & Puppet, reviewing local theater for underground papers and later shooting an award-winning documentary about the American involvement in Southeast Asia. Theater was indivisible from his existence as a political activist; he helped organize a college tour for Judith Malina and Julian Beck's The Living Theater. The message of the theater pieces was unequivocal: students must protest to end the Vietnam War.

"Many of the colleges erupted after theydid their performances," he said.

When he left New York in 1985, Grund came to Ulster County. Employed as a social worker for the county, he again combined his twin passions of agitating for social justice and creating provocative theater. After adapting poetry by Harlem Renaissance avatar Langston Hughes for the stage, Grund wrote and produced a play called Crack Alley. He cast former addicts and other youths at risk in the production.
"It was a transformative experience," Grund said. "Here they were being applauded for doing something that was positive, instead of ripping off somebody."

Most recently, Grund directed a 2004 production of Howard Zinn's Emma, a stage dramatization of the life of one of his heroes: the 20th-century social activist Emma Goldman, at Byrdcliffe Theater. Goldman was a fierce, uncompromising feminist, free speech activist, union organizer, and anarchist. An immigrant to the United States, Goldman worked to improve ghetto conditions and spoke out against the Great War. For her efforts, Goldman was finally deported to Russia in 1919. In a 2004 interview, Grund told me that the playwright gave him permission to streamline the epic play. "He trusted me to go ahead and interpret his work the best I can."

Michael Monasterial was a jock at Yonkers' Roosevelt High School in the late 70s. He was also class clown. A friend suggested he apply that natural talent to joining the drama club. Looking back, Monasterial understands the dynamics at the work...

"When you have low esteem, you want to be someone else," he said, "so acting and drama just fit in with that."

After several high school productions, Monasterial graduated but kept his love of theater alive through college, resulting in the creation of his own acting company. Three Brothers Theater was established in 1984, while Monasterial also did daywork as a cameraman at the United Nations. He wrote several scripts and received local grants to stage them over the next seven years at local high schools and colleges. Often, the troupe only received stipends to cover gas money.

Monasterial pledged that his work would focus on upbeat messages. "I wanted plays with social significance," he said. "Themes of independence, self-sufficiency and pride." Monasterial, who is of mixed race [black, white and Puerto Rican] not only faced family problems at home, but admits that his life went off the rails at one point. While he declines to provide details, the misstep apparently involved either gang time or jail time or both, because Recidivism carries the bitter tang of prison talk and depicts the mounting passions that occur when testosterone behind bars clashes.

"All the material in this play is accurate," he said, "down to the uniforms, language, lifestyle."

Monasterial wrote Recidivism six years ago and first staged it for the members of a drug treatment program in the Westchester town of Valhalla. The audience, composed of former inmates, praised the integrity of the piece, telling the cast and playwright, "This is our story."
While the prevailing message is that people should take responsibility for their actions, and break self-defeating patterns, Monasterial knows that preachy theater can be easily dismissed. "[Recidivism] is therapy," he said, "but if it wasn't good theater, no one would watch it." His theatrical skills were honed at Manhattan's famous HB Studio.

Monasterial has nurtured his current theater program, Passing the Torch through the Arts, while maintaining his own small construction company. As he did for Three Brothers, Monasterial mounts shows at schools and auditoriums for at-risk and low-income youth ["people with ambition but an inability to vent their frustrations," he said]. Recent productions have been staged for members of the Boys & Girls Clubs and young parishioners from local black community churches. Monasterial strives for his company's fiscally self-sufficiency.

Monasterial will return to ASK next February with a production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and then tour regional middle schools. There is talk of filming Recidivism in the old UlsterCounty Jail.

In an era where schools face shrinking budgets and are forced to jettison their arts programs, Monasterial sees Passing the Torch as a crucial resource. "There are so many bad choices out there," he said, "so many dark paths these kids can take."

Bruce Grund waxes optimistic about the potential of the partnership forged by the two theatrical companies.