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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Thursday, March 17, 2005

New York Daily News - News & Views - Clem Richardson's City Beat: In tune with jazz legend

New York Daily News - News & Views - Clem Richardson's City Beat: In tune with jazz legend: "In tune with jazz legend
In tune with jazz legend

Rome Neal
It's weeks before his one-man show launches off-Broadway, and Rome Neal is forced to improvise.

"My computer's broken," he groans in his Fort Greene, Brooklyn, home. "Today is the deadline for ads for the Playbill, and my computer crashes. I can't even get Word [a writing program] to work. Fine time for all this."

Neal, 52, is putting the final touches on his role in "Monk," a play about legendary jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. The piece was written by Laurence Holder, with music by Bill Lee.

The show, running March 15 through May 8 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th St., will mark about the 12th time Neal has played Monk since Holder wrote the piece for him five years ago. They debuted the show at the lower East Side's Nuyorican Cafe.

Monk has become the signature performance of Neal, who is better known as a director and playwright.

The great jazz drummer Max Roach, who played on several albums with Monk, caught a performance and told Neal it was like seeing the legend himself on stage.

"I took that as high praise, coming from him," Neal said. "I feel a lot of 'Monkisms' in me sometimes. When Monk was feeling his music, he would get up from the piano and dance. I love dancing and had to incorporate some of my dance movements into the play."

Like Monk, who died in 1982, Neal has experienced the financial ebbs and flows of the artistic life.

Growing up in Brooklyn - his family moved there from South Carolina when he was 2 - Neal caught the acting bug when he took a theater class at Baruch College.

"We did two plays, 'Our Town' and 'Lovers and Other Strangers,'" he recalled.

After graduating in 1976 with a retail and marketing degree, Neal got a job funded by the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, running a recreational program in Tompkins Park in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

He used the gig to form the Neal Ensemble Theatre Workshop and stage plays at the park.

"That's where I learned my craft, as a director and producer in the CETA program," he said. "We had a lot of professional people come through. The actor Laurence Fishburne auditioned for one of our productions. He didn't get the part, but I think it was because something else came up."

When CETA money dried up, Neal discovered Theatre for the New City and the Nuyorican Cafe, where he worked in his first play, Miguel Pinero's "Nuyorican Nights," directed by Miguel Algarin.

Neal has directed several award-winning plays at the Nuyorican, including a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" set in Africa.

He asked Holder to write "Monk" after the two met at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. He has since performed the work at the Nuyorican as well as in several cities around the country.

"What I like about Monk is he's an artist, and an artist goes through trials and tribulations in this world to get their art across, and that is what he did," Neal said.

Monk Great

Classic Thelonious Monk compositions include "'Round Midnight," "52nd Street Theme" and "Straight, No Chaser."

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