At Vanguard, Janeece Freeman Clark envisions the dawn of a brighter world.
About 25 years ago or so, a superintendent of schools in Lansing, Michigan, instituted a few budget cuts – and inadvertently created a musical theater director.
The would-be director, Janeece Freeman Clark, was a high school student, up until then content to shine onstage and let others do the heavy lifting around creating a show. But when she found out that the annual high school musical was being slashed from the budget, she got to work, coordinating bottle drives and car washes to raise money, and eventually directing an entire show, including building sets from scratch and raiding parents’ closets for costumes.
The resulting production of Godspell was such a success that the superintendent reinstated several of the programs he’d cut.
And Clark found her life’s work.
It took a while, of course, for all the pieces to fall into place. First, she went to the University of Michigan, where she majored in voice and theater, and minored in psychology and education. Then she moved to New York City to be an actor, where she hit the big stage and met her husband while performing in Urinetown (both as token Black characters).
“I was working quite a bit...and I loved a lot of it,” Clark recalls now, “[but] it felt like there was a missing piece for me...I was put in special boxes...I just got tired of it. [I realized] the only way I’m going to change this is to get on the other side of the table.”
And so, in 2015, she returned to her original job when she became the founding artistic director of the Vanguard Theater Company, a professional, regional theater based in Montclair that has rapidly made a name for itself. Clark has been instrumental in its rise: several of the theater’s original shows have transferred to New York; the theater has won numerous awards and grants – one of its primary funders is Lin Manuel Miranda’s foundation – and last year it was the only nonprofit in New Jersey to receive a grant from Michael Jordan’s Brand foundation, a grant focused on improving Black lives.
Like Miranda’s Hamilton, Clark intentionally casts a show to add depth and social commentary. She objects to the term “colorblind” casting. She says the world is not colorblind. Instead, she deliberately casts certain characters. This is not just to give young actors of color a chance to shine in lots of distinct roles. It is about bringing the audience face to face with its prejudices and assumptions.
In Spring Awakening, for example, she cast a Black character for the boy who struggles to learn, is ostracized by his teachers and eventually commits suicide, because Clark wanted to shine a light on the Black boys who are treated in similar ways in schools across the country; she also wanted the Black community to take a look at depression and mental illness, two subjects that are often taboo.
“Though many of the themes in Spring Awakening are universal,” Clark wrote in her director’s notes, “how each character might experience them differs based on their lived history. The narrative of this story takes on a few additional layers with this in mind. At times, this might feel uncomfortable. I encourage you to lean into that discomfort and allow yourself to experience this story from the viewpoint of many different lenses.”
Likewise, in the theater’s production of Music Man, Harold Hill was a Filipino rapper and the mayor was a Black lesbian woman. And the town was composed of traditional and non-traditional families of all races and ethnicities.
“We really wanted to celebrate the vibrant tapestry of community,” Clark says of that show. “That’s so much of what we do….When you’re looking at that beautiful, diverse community come together on stage, you say, ‘Why can’t we do this?’”
But changing the world through casting and staging is just one aspect of Vanguard’s mission. The ultimate purpose of Vanguard is to diversify all aspects of musical theater through a robust educational program.
In fact, Clark was nominated for a 2022 Tony for arts education because so much of what Vanguard does is focused on opening the industry to underserved students. The theater runs a mentoring program, Broadway Buddy, that pairs 30 up-and-coming actors with a Broadway counterpart. Some of its shows match professional actors with pre-professional understudies or cast members. And VTC Next focuses on diversifying theater’s traditional gatekeepers by training a diverse group of young writers, producers, composers, directors, and stage managers.
Throughout the year the company also runs acting classes for students; it does its best to make those classes affordable and provides scholarships to those who need it. Its three-week summer stock sleep away camp, for instance, costs $3500, half of what other such camps cost. At the same time, it gives away $50,000 in tuition scholarships to the camp.
When she is not stretched thin at the theater, Clark teaches at both Manhattan School of Music and Seton Hall University, where she also directs.
She and her husband, Broadway actor Dwayne Clark, have lived in South Orange with their children since 2008. Dwayne grew up in Irvington – a talented child who needed a break, which he got from a Broadway star who taught him to dance – and he always wanted to live in South Orange.
Their life in the town has not disappointed them. “We love our community,” Clark says.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have plans for changing it. Luckily, those plans are often on display at Vanguard’s stage – for all the world to see.
Tia Swanson saw Vanguard’s production of “Spring Awakening” and was blown away by the talent and enthusiasm of the young cast.