When you talk to Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the actor, writer, director and co-founder of Mixed Magic Theatre here in nearby Pawtucket, you quickly realize this is a man who does not take the arts lightly. He is a true believer in the power of theatre to transform and feels this has never been more important than in these troubling times of Ferguson and Baltimore. “The arts can play a critical role in bridging the gap between inner city minority youth and the rest of our society, I believe,” he maintains. And from the end of May into June, his theatre will be showcasing a number of their successful presentations as proof.
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has always liked Providence. When he arrived from Detroit in 1974 to accept an acting position with Trinity Rep, he was pleasantly surprised at how innovative its productions were under the legendary leadership of Adrian Hall. He was equally impressed with how the company embraced diversity. “When I joined the company, I was one of five black actors at Trinity. Forty years later, how many companies have that many even now?”
But despite his imposing stage presence and rich baritone voice, he was soon interested in doing more than just performing. In 2000, with his wife Bernadet, he founded Mixed Magic Theatre as a “non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on stage.” Over the years, some of their productions, many of which he had written, directed or performed in, have gone on to gain national attention. One was the retelling of the Melville classic Moby Dick as two parallel stories... one version done somewhat more traditionally, the other restructured with “Ahab” now “Alba,” a teenage girl in mad pursuit of an illusive drug lord named “White Thing” who killed her brother in a drug deal gone bad. The play Moby Dick: Then and Now has been performed on both coasts and at the National Theatre in Washington. It also has been the focus of an MIT book written on alternative teaching techniques. “I get particularly upset when I hear that the minority urban kids can’t understand the classics so don’t waste your time with them. It simply isn’t true. We just have to teach them in ways that they’ll understand,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mixed Magic continues to flourish and has now become a full-fledged family endeavor. Ricardo and Bernadette’s son Jonathan joined the company as artistic director in 2013 after graduating from Yale. In addition, he also teaches upper school history at Moses Brown as well as being an assistant coach of lacrosse there.
There are two new major productions being performed in May and June. The first is Reflections: Growing Up a Black Man in America (If it was easy, everyone would do it), which has been conceived and directed by Pitts-Willy. It will be performed May 21-23 at 7:30pm at the AS220 Black Box Theatre, 95 Empire Street.
In addition through May 31, a new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein will be performed on weekends at the theater’s home at 560 Mineral Spring Ave. in Pawtucket. Like Moby Dick: Then and Now, it presents a classic story in a more accessible fashion. “But the themes... ethics, prejudice, personal responsibility for what one creates... are all still valid.. And today’s kids understand that perhaps better than we do,” suggests Pitts-Wiley. He is responsible for the adaptation. MJ Daly and Jeannie Carson direct.
But for the total Mixed Magic experience, catch their outdoor fundraiser at the outdoor theatre at Lorraine Mills on Saturday, June 27 (with the 28th as a rain date). That evening, the company will perform songs and scenes from past years’ musicals including When Mahalia Sings, Waiting For Bessie Smith, The Greatness of Gospel and their traditional holiday show Kwanzaa Song.
On a broader scale, Pitts-Wiley is also committed to the role theatre can play in defusing tensions that can undermine a community as recently occurred in Baltimore. “There is an opportunity here to create a meaningful dialogue between the police and the community that we need to take advantage of to insure it doesn’t happen here. My hope is that inner city kids, the general public and the police will attend Reflections. This is an important moment for all of us. I would hate to see this opportunity be nothing more than a blurred memory in just a few months,” he says. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Pitts-Wiley is preparing a Providence-based forum in the fall, details of which are being developed.
For more information on Mixed Magic or any of their events visit www.mmtri.com or call 305-7333