Whatever you might imagine a group called Classical Theatre of Harlem to be, there's a good chance the company's résumé defies it.
Classical Theatre of Harlem's first season, 1999-2000, included Macbeth and Lysistrata. But as its motto, "Changing the Face of American Theatre," suggests, the company stages classics to radically rework them. For instance, its current production is an adaptation of Euripides' Trojan Women, set in a mockup of a ruined Penn Station, and incorporating testimony from survivors of civil wars in Sierrra Leone and Liberia. The season also includes Ty Jones's Emancipation, a world premiere about legendary African-American slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner.
The critically lauded company -- observers also note the youth and diversity of its audiences -- has tackled Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, modernist classics like Rhinoceros and Waiting for Godot, and August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. It's also staged new adaptations of Richard Wright's Native Son and Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain. Along the way it's won numerous awards, including, in 2003, several Obies for its lauded production of Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show. The New York Times has called Classical Theatre "dauntless" and "adventurous."
Now, the group led by artistic director Alfred Preisser holds its first performance in Pittsburgh, and the show is something else yet again. Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (Feb. 5 and 6, at the Cabaret at Theater Square) is a 1971 musical by Melvin Van Peebles (better known as a filmmaker). The show, which Classical Theatre revived in 2004, is based on three music albums Van Peebles had recorded. On stage, it takes the form of 19 musical monologues grittily exploring contemporary African-American street life. With its funk, soul, jazz and blues, its political edge, its dark comedy and sexual themes, the work has been cited as a precursor to rap music and contemporary spoken-word performance. Characters include a death-row inmate, a Malcolm X lieutenant, a drag queen and a blind beggar. The Village Voice called Ain't Supposed to Die a "startling work of sulfurous social criticism."
Ten days after Ain't Supposed to Die, on Feb. 15 and 16, again hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Classical Theatre stages its Romeo and Juliet at Downtown's Creative and Performing Arts High School. What to expect? As Preisser told The New York Sun last year, before a free outdoor staging of the production, "There is not a correct way to do classic plays."
Classical Theatre of Harlem presents Ain't Supposed to Die A Natural Death 7:30 p.m. Tue., Feb. 5, and 7:30 p.m. Wed., Feb. 6. Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown. $25.50.
Romeo and Juliet 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 15, and 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 16. Creative and Performing Arts High School, 111 Ninth St., Downtown. $25.50 ($15.50 students).
412-456-666 or www.pgharts.org