Making ‘Man of La Mancha’ Matter

The 5th Avenue Theater updates the tale of Don Quixote and his creator for a new era.

It was a harrowing week at the 5th Avenue Theater in mid-September. After seeing celebrated leading man Norm Lewis bow out of the upcoming production of Man of La Mancha, the theater scrambled to replace the actor who’d made history as the first African-American to play the Phantom on Broadway. With some luck, the theater quickly landed Rufus Bonds Jr., another accomplished black performer with Broadway bona fides.

Director Allison Narver, in an interview the week that Bonds began rehearsal, admitted that the quick pivot just weeks before opening proved difficult, but maintained that Hobbs is more than prepared for the task at hand. In particular, she points to Bonds’ performance of “The Impossible Dream,” the musical’s biggest hit and now a standard, which the actor performed for the first time the morning of our interview.

“The room was in tears,” she said, “because he brings this heart and soul to it and his own sense of history and the history of African-Americans in this country and what’s happening right now.” The cross-racial casting of the 5th’s Man of La Mancha, which for its Broadway premiere back in 1964 featured an all-white cast, is just one of the updates Narver is bringing to the story of the fictional hero Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes, the imprisoned 16th-century novelist who created him. Most notably, she has pulled the story out of the era of the Spanish Inquisition and thrust it into a more contemporary world, replacing the dungeon of the original with a nondescript modern-day prison, which could be Guantanamo or any number of other detention facilities around the world where immigrants and political prisoners are held. It is this setting that helped inform the casting. “I wanted people who looked, who felt like the world,” Narver said. “You know, I wanted diversity of people onstage, because it’s something that is important to me, but it also helps tell this story.”

That story is one of oppression and imagination, in which Cervantes is forced to perform for his fellow prisoners the fanciful, comic, and brutal tale of a hero made mad by injustice. It is a story that Nova Payton, the black Washington, D.C., actress who plays the dual role of Aldonza and Dulcinea, believes needs to be told right now by this particular cast. “They’re talking about fighting for freedom and being free from oppression,” she said. “I think that with this role in this show in particular, being told by us is definitely another way to look at and open up the minds of people to how relevant this story is today.” 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900. $24 and up. Ends Oct. 30.