Montclair’s Vanguard Theater Company Shaking Up Cultural, Social Narratives

The theater has recast traditionally white productions and roles with BIPOC actors. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Michael Jordan have taken notice.

Actor performing at a Montclair's Vanguard Theater
Vanguard Theater in Montclair strives to provide more diverse casting in its performances. Photo: Courtesy of Spotlights Photography

Janeece Freeman Clark, founder of the Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair, grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where her love for musical theater was initially sparked. But when she moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater, she was often asked at auditions to act more “Black” or “urban.”

“I was completely insulted,” says Freeman Clark. “I found myself being placed in really specific boxes. I decided the only way to change this was if I got on the other side of the table.”

So in 2015, she jumped at the chance to found her own theater company in the heart of Montclair on Bloomfield Avenue, just a few blocks down from the Wellmont Theater. The goal of the theater is to shift cultural and social narratives through theater; their mission is to DREAM (diversity, reciprocity, education, activism and mentorship).

Since its opening in 2015, the theater has produced classic shows, recasting traditionally white productions and roles with BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) actors in such musicals as The Music Man in 2017 and Spring Awakening, presented earlier this summer.

The Vanguard has been referred to as Montclair’s best-kept secret. But Freeman Clark says she doesn’t want to be a secret anymore. 

The theater is well on its way to that reality, having just last year been awarded the Black Community Commitment Grant by Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand. The theater has also gotten support from another very big name, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose online shop, TeeRico, and his foundation, the Miranda Family, are sponsors. 

As Freeman Clark says, “There’s so much important work that’s being done at the regional theater level.”

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