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Step by step into a storied past

Hammerstep’s Jason Oremus (right) and Garrett Coleman

By Larry Kirwan

One of the joys of conceiving a musical with Broadway aspirations is that you get to work with people you’ve always admired.

As I type this I’m in the spacious rehearsal studios of Berkeley Repertory Theatre next to choreographer Bill T. Jones, and watching Hammerstep guide a large group of performers through the intricacies of Irish step dancing as we imagine it might have been performed in 1863.

Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman are well used to such feats of re-imagination and that’s why I suggested that they work with the legendary Mr. Jones.

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We’re all gathered in California to work on a story about two brutalized peoples, “Famine Irish” and African-American, who met in the Five Points of New York City and for a brief moment arrested the course of American history.

The two peoples intermarried, raised families, and were derisively called Amalgamationists by a shocked nativist establishment until many were forced to flee New York during the Draft Riots of 1863.

Their influence remains, not only through a shared DNA, but through Tap Dancing, an art form that they created.

Our story began in Manhattan’s Cell Theatre with the staging of Hard Times back in 2013/14 but has since morphed into a far more comprehensive production that enables us to depict the amazing mosaic of the Five Points at the height of the American Civil War.

The piece, now called Paradise Square, is taking shape before our eyes with the help of 32 actors/singers/dancers and a crack team of creative professionals.

But who are these Hammerstep guys and how are they fitting in so effortlessly? You could say they’ve come a long way, both literally and figuratively.

Jason Oremus was born in Sydney, Australia and raised there by a single mother who often had to work two jobs to make ends meet. The neighborhood was drug-ridden and the young mother enrolled Jason and his sister, Jade, in Irish dance classes to keep them off the streets in her absence.

He credits his teacher, Geraldine French, who by sheer force of personality weaned him off soccer and propelled him to five national step-dancing titles and eventually the coveted spot as lead dancer in Riverdance.

But there were rough years when Jason and Jade danced on the streets of Sydney to pay for their school tuition and put food on the table.

What makes Hammerstep ideal for this project is that having fought their way out of troubled communities both Garrett and Jason are totally at ease on the mean streets of our recreated Five Points.

Garrett Coleman grew up in a diverse neighborhood of Pittsburgh during the height of the city’s recession when it faced poverty, crime and joblessness.

He too had a mother who insisted that he master Irish dance because it was important for his family to remain rooted in their Irish cultural heritage.

Likewise he had a powerhouse teacher, Theresa “Tessie” Burke - amazingly a longtime friend of Jason’s teacher, Geraldine French.

The young Pittsburgh boy realized early on that dance was not only a dynamic form of self-expression but that it also boosted his confidence and allowed him to stand apart in his teenage years.

He quit all sports, became one of the first North Americans to win back-to-back world championship dance titles, and eventually joined Riverdance where he met Jason.

They both had a desire to wed Irish step dancing to hip-hop, African stepping, martial arts and various rhythmic forms of movement rooted in rebellion.

This is what attracted me to Hammerstep, for to work with Bill Jones you must abandon your comfort zone. The man is constantly searching for the truth in a story, refusing to accept hallowed beliefs, and demanding that we confront today’s problems even as we focus on a distinct period of the past.

He’s not alone. Director Moisés Kaufman and musical director Jason Howland insist that all dancers act and sing, skills that Hammerstep have had to speedily acquire.

I doubt that any of us will ever be quite the same as we tumble down a tunnel in time to the strange, turbulent world of Paradise Square where two brutalized peoples united to challenge a nationalist and narrow concept of America.

Paradise Square at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA

Dec. 27-Feb. 17. Tickets and information at http://www.berkeleyrep.org