Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre

NEW YORK – "The New World Symphony: Dvorák in America" is a puppet and object theater work examining the influence of African-American and Native American music upon the great 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904). The piece is written and directed by Vít Horejš and performed by Czechoslovak American Marionette Theatre. It traces how Dvorák helped America accept its beautiful multicultural musical traditions by his enthusiasm for African-American and Native American music during his short but influential time in the USA. La MaMa Theatre will present the play's world premiere run March 10 to 27, 2016 in its Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street (East Village). Composer and Musical Director is saxophonist James Brandon Lewis.

The piece depicts Dvorák's creative and family life during his tenure as the Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in NYC, and the highlights of his three-year stay in the US (1892-1895) in NY and in the "little Bohemia" of Spillville, Iowa where he spent the summer of 1893.

While in America, Dvorák declared that African-American and Native American music would be the foundation on which new American music would rise up. As we all know, this happened, although the contemporary musical idioms (not only in America but throughout the world) based on African-American music are very different from what the Czech composer envisioned. During his time in New York, Dvorák composed his landmark "The New World Symphony," a work inspired by Spirituals and the Hiawatha story. His creation of the symphony is an important theme of the play. 

The characters of the play include Dvorák and his family (including his wife's sister, Josefína Cermáková, the love of his life, for whom he composed the song-cycle "Cypresses"), the founder of the American Conservatory of Music, Janet Thurber, who was his patron; his African-American students Harry Burleigh and Will Marion Cook and various New York musicians--his students and protégés. Chief Big Moon of the Hunkpapa Tribe (one of the seven council fires of the Lakota) discourses eloquently on Native American music. Several African-American luminaries also make appearamces in the play, including poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, soprano Sissieretta Jones, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. 

Music ranges from spirituals and work songs to Dvorák's original compositions, to jazz and rock. Composer and Musical Director is African-American saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. Steeped in spirituals, gospel and free jazz, Lewis was hailed by Ebony Magazine as one of "7 Young Players to Watch." Playing with Lewis will be Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III on drums. Two Dvorák experts, Michael Beckerman (Chair of NYU's Music Department) and conductor Maurice Peress, have provided dramaturgical assistance.

The play's prologue is performed by ten inch marionettes in a "family" puppet theater stage that is familiar to most Czech children to this day. This particular antique theatre and marionettes belonged to the mother of Madeleine Albright when she was a child in pre-WWI Czechoslovakia. As a little girl, the future U.S. Secretary of State used it to put on puppet shows for her family and friends. She donated this marionette theater to the Czech community in New York City three years ago and it currently resides in Bohemian Hall.

For this production, the company has created new puppets from musical instrument parts, found objects and traditional elements to act alongside its collection of antique Czech marionettes. Costume designer is Theresa Linnihan, set designer is Tom Lee and lighting designer is Federico Restrepo. The actor/puppeteers are Deborah Beshaw-Farrell, Michelle Beshaw, Vít Horejš, Harlem-Lafayette, Theresa Linnihan, Valois Mickens, John Scott Richardson and Ben Watts (as Dvorák). 

While living in the USA, Dvorák learned much from his African-American students, including Will Marion Cook and Harry Burleigh, who in turn influenced Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Aaron Copeland, Eubie Blake and others. In a famous recording, Art Tatum plays a jazz rendition of Dvorák's "Humoresque." Theirs is a collective tradition that reflects the vision of Jeanette Thurber, Dvorák's American patron, who aimed to foster an "American Sound." Her National Conservatory of Music of America offered free musical education to people of color, women and talented persons who could not pay the tuition. Dvorák also gathered inspiration for the "American Sound" from such non-musical sources as steam locomotives and the Minihaha Waterfall in Minneapolis. (He even planned a symphony based on Niagra Falls, but never wrote it.) The play contains a scene in which Burleigh fears to accompany the maestro for a trainspotting expedition near a tunnel at 155th Street in Manhattan, insisting that trespassing would be unsafe for him as a black man. Dvorák went anyway, and got arrested.

The production's score contains verbatim sections from "The New World Symphony" rearranged and re-contextualized for the piece. It also includes "Going Home" (this song is based on the famous Largo from Dvorák's 9th symphony, although earlier sources are sometimes erroneously cited), the spiritual "Go Down Moses," and others. The famous moonlight aria from "Rusalka" and selections from String Quartet #12 "American" will be played. The score also includes some original music focusing on simple, bluesy melodies. Composer James Brandon Lewis says, "I have been trying to paint a picture which still gives respect to the classics but moves things forward." Some Gospel songs will begin as if they were performed by a stodgy Temperance choir and then morph into the familiar, rollicking "urban gospel" sound. Bringing both the New World Symphony and various classic songs up to date allows the audience to savor their affinity.

The production had workshop performances January 30 and 31, 2016 at Bohemian National Hall, 321 East 73rd St., NYC, presented by GOH Productions and Dvorák-American Heritage Association (DAHA).

James Brandon Lewis (composer, saxophone, music director) has received accolades from mainstream cultural tastemakers such as Ebony Magazine, who hailed him as one of “7 Young Players to Watch,” and has earned the respect of a diverse cross section of esteemed artists. Lewis has appeared with such icons as Benny Golson, Geri Allen, Wallace Roney, Grammy® Award-winning singer Dorinda Clark Cole, Albertina Walker, Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson, William Parker, Gerald Cleaver and and Sabir Mateen. He has also collaborated with the dance company CircuitDebris under the direction of Mersiha Mesihovic. Lewis attended Howard University and holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. He has two recordings on SONY/OKEH, "Divine Travels" (2013) and “Days of Freeman” (2015), which was voted one of the best CDs of 2015 by Jazz Now. (

Vit Horejš, an emigré from Prague, founded Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre (CAMT) in 1990, utilizing century-old Czech puppets which he found at Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street. His trademark is using puppets of many sizes, from six-inch toy marionettes to twelve-foot rod puppets which double as scenery. CAMT is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional and not-so-traditional puppetry. 

At La MaMa Theatre, where the company is in residence, it has performed "The Little Rivermaid Rusalka" (1999), "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" (2000), "The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Joan of France" (2001), "Don Juan or the Wages of Debauchery" (2003), "The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald" (2004), "Once There Was a Village" (2007), an ethno-opera with puppets, found objects and music by Frank London of the Klezmatics; "Twelfth Night (or What You Will)" (2009) and the troupe's most successful work, "Golem" (1997, 1998 Henson International Puppetry Festival, and 2011), which also had a score by Frank London. Its last premiere there was "The Republic, or My Dinner with Socrates" (2013). The company revived its "A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa" there in 2014.

Theater for the New City has presented the company in five productions. "The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York" (2008) explored the Rosenberg trial with a manipulated set but few puppets. Anita Gates wrote in the New York Times, "Vit Horejš has written and directed a first-rate, thoroughly original production and made it look effortless. The cast gives charged, cohesive performances, and the staging is expert." "Revolution!?" (2010) was a collaboration with three performers from Prague, examining revolutions throughout the history of mankind as a backdrop for the extraordinary peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia. "Mr. M" (2011) was the first American stage adaptation of "Mr. Theodore Mundstock" by Ladislav Fuks, a postwar Czech writer of psychological fiction. In 2013, puppets and live performers enacted an enigmatic tale of early World War II in "King Executioner," written and directed by Vit Horejs, loosely based on "When you are a King, You will be an Executioner" (1968) by the Polish magical realist novelist Tadeusz Nowak (1930-1991). In 2015, the company performed "The Magic Garden, or, The Princess Who Grew Antlers," an ensemble creation that was cheerfully assembled from Czech fairy tales in which antlers appear. 

Productions in other venues have ranged from Czech classics to Shakespeare to fairy tales. "Johannes Dokchtor Faust" premiered in its first season (1990) and was re-staged in 1994 as part of NADA's Obie Award-winning "Faust Festival" in Soho. It was revived at La MaMa in 2000 and at Manhattan's Bohemian Hall in 2007. "Hamlet" debuted at the Vineyard Theater in 1995, was performed at outdoor venues in NY, and toured to the 2004 Prague Summer Shakespeare Festival at Prague Castle. It was revived on Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO, Brooklyn in 2007. "The Bass Saxophone," a WWII fantasy with music based on a story by Czech-Canadian writer Josef Skvorecky, played 11 weeks at the Grand Army Plaza Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Arch in Brooklyn during the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006. CAMT's productions for young audiences include "A Christmas Carol--OY! Hanukkah--Merry Kwanzaa," "The Historye of Queen Esther, of King Ahasverus & of the Haughty Haman," "Kacha and the Devil," "The White Doe - Or The Piteous Trybulations of the Sufferyng Countess Jenovefa," "Snehurka, The Snow Maiden" and "Twelve Iron Sandals." 

CAMT has also appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, the Smithsonian Institution, The World Trade Center, the Antonin Dvorák Festival in Spillville, Iowa, the 2012 inauguration of The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis, the Lowell Folk Arts Festival in Massachusetts and in international festivals in Poland, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea and the Czech Republic.


An integral part of New York City’s cultural landscape, La MaMa has a worldwide reputation for producing daring work in theater, dance, performance art, and music that defies form and transcends boundaries of language, race, and culture. Founded in 1961 by theater pioneer and legend Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is a global organization with creative partners and dedicated audiences around the world. La MaMa presents an average of 60-70 productions annually, most of which are world premieres. To date, over 3,500 productions have been presented at La MaMa with artists from more than 70 nations. Honored with more than 30 OBIE Awards and dozens of Drama Desk and Bessie Awards, La MaMa’s programming is culturally diverse and cross-disciplinary, drawing audiences from all walks of life. For the third consecutive year, La MaMa will offer its 10@$10 program whereby ten tickets are made available for every performance in every theater in advance for only $10.