Kareem Nemley remembers exactly when the idea for Rooted Theater Company was born. In 2013, he was riding the subway home to East New York, where he was born and currently resides, and overheard a nearby conversation. A few people were talking about a recent crime in Brownsville that led to five teenagers being wrongfully accused of raping an 18-year-old woman at gunpoint.
It reminded him of a play he first encountered while in college in North Carolina, Romulus Linney’s stage adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.” Set in the 1930s, the story revolves around a young man arrested for a murder he witnessed but did not commit. “During that train ride, I thought, of course, these kids didn’t know what was going to happen, but they could have said no—they decided not to,” Nemley says. “I wished they could have seen the show.”
So he decided to stage it himself. Working with his husband, Wilfredo Florentino—who describes himself as handling the business aspects of the theater company while Nemley is concerned with the artistic direction—they received a grant for around $3,500 from the Brooklyn Arts Council, and developed a partnership with the Arts East New York organization, where they stage their shows. The play, which required seven actors and a set built from scratch, was cast in East New York, where three local actors, one a young teenager about to enter college, all joined the production.
It turned out to be a success, especially the “talkback” discussions after the show with the audience, which typically lasted almost as long as the play. “There’s always so much to discuss,” Nemley says. “We’re the only theater in [the area], so it’s important to us that the community, and perceptions of it, are held in high regard,” Florentino adds.
Rooted’s season consists of two shows, one in the fall and the other in the spring. The spring performance is a single play, while the fall production is a symposium, where they accept submissions from both local and national artists. The symposium, which was being cast in September, showcases varieties of performance, including poetry and one-act plays, and “is really meant to encapsulate a host of feelings and sentiments and emotions that are going on right now,” Florentino says.
But their main goal right now is expansion while keeping intact the company’s mission to put on socially relevant theater based on local experiences. Nemley and Florentino both have day jobs—the former is an interior designer, while the latter works for the NAACP—so Rooted remains a labor of love. They plan to add one show each season, working toward being able to apply for larger grants, and dream of having their own storefront space, which Nemly describes, with a laugh, as “bodega-style theater.”
In the meantime, the company continues to grow. People keep coming back — including audience members and those who have helped put on shows. “Everyone who helps us out as an actor has moved onto other things in the company,” Nemley says. “We always say once you’ve done something with us you’re immediately family.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2019/20 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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