3/5: Seeking SANCTUARY at NJ Rep

NPR radio host, performance poet and playwright Al Letson recaptures a SUMMER IN SANCTUARY, in his solo show going up this week in Long Branch.

Actor, writer, producer, “multi-disciplinary artist,” dyslexic, son of a preacher man — Al Letson is all those things and then some; a real one man show who made his mark as a nationally competing Poetry Slam champion on stages as big as the 2004 Final Four Pre-Game to Def Poetry Jam.

To a burgeoning body of listeners, he’s a familiar presence on the radio dial; not as a shoot-from-the-lip talker with three daily hours to fill, but as the host of NPR’s State of the Re:Union, a series of exquisitely produced and provocative hourlong documentaries that took shape when the native of Plainfield won the nationwide Public Radio Talent Quest in 2008.

The 39 year old Letson is also a prolific playwright — an author whose “poetical” blends of song and story include Griot (a “three centuries of culture in 90 minutes” exploration of storytelling, from precolonial Africa to hiphop America) and Julius X (a “mash-up” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with the life of Malcolm X). Beginning with previews this Thursday and opening on Saturday, March 10, Letson comes to Long Branch for an extended stay, when he brings his solo stage piece Summer in Sanctuary to New Jersey Repertory Company for an engagement that continues through March 25.

Sanctuary, it turns out, is not just a concept but a very real place — The Sanctuary on 8th Street community center in Jacksonville, FL to be precise. It was there, in the midst of the poverty-ravaged Springfield section, that Letson wore yet another hat over those trademark dreadlocks — that of educator, during a 2006 interlude in which the once-shy kid who never went to college endeavored to teach Creative Writing to a classroom of inner city teenagers. The extent to which he succeeded or failed sits at the heart of Sanctuary, a work about which the author says, “This is a play in which the bad guy is me…the person named ‘Al’ is the anti-hero.”

For his stint on LB’s lower Broadway, Letson teams with director Rob Urbinati, whose Minstrel Show caused something of a stir at NJ Rep back in 2007. Performances will take place in the playhouse’s intimately scaled Second Stage space, and tickets are being offered at a substantial discount to full time students age 25 and under.

UpperWETside caught up with the continent-crossing creator of compelling content, somewhere in America…

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