New theater festival opens in Harlem (39784)

Last week saw the bold opening of the new Harlem Theater Arts Festival at several theaters. Its inaugural season presented works by award-winning artists, including mZuri’s one-woman show “The Fannie Lou Hamer Story,” on the civil rights leader; Lynn Nottage’s one-act drama “Poof!”; and Karimah’s powerful historical play, “Accept/Except.” Companies behind this inaugural season included the New Heritage Theatre Group, the National Black Theatre and the Negro Ensemble Company.

Mzuri’s “The Fannie Lou Hamer Story,” directed by Jeremiah Drake and produced by the New Heritage Theater Group, dramatized the true story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor Black woman from Mississippi who challenged the illegal voting registration practices leveled against Blacks in the early 1960s. Hamer endured loss of employment, jailing and beatings for standing up against racist white police and the segregationist power structure in the South.

Mzuri effectively evoked Hamer’s courage and determination to right the system with her strong singing voice, straightforward monologue and upright stance. At times, she spoke directly to the audience and engaged them in singing along with well-known spirituals that girded Hamer and other protestors, like ‘Turn Me Around,” “Come By Here” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Working with the SNCC, Hamer organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sent a delegation to the 1964 Democratic Convention. Mzuri wrote the script with a few anachronisms thrown in about violent racist events of our times and video montages of the real Hamer. The granddaughter of a slave and one of 20 children of a sharecropper, Hamer died at the age of 59 from cancer.

“Poof!” written by award-winning playwright Nottage, gave a revealing look at the victims of domestic abuse and how they wrestle with overcoming their fear and their doubts after suffering years of abusive treatment.

Directed by Charles Weldon, “Poof!” followed the reaction of a battered wife after she screams at her husband, damning him to hell, at which point he self-ignites and turns into a pile of ashes. Theatrically, the opening scene brilliantly dramatized his destruction with provocative lighting and sound effects. His wife, Laureen, played by Kimberlyn Crawford, emerges from behind a chair in their living room in shock and disbelief.

What follows is a testament to Nottage’s playwriting talent and Crawford’s skilled capability to play a range of varied emotions, including surprise, fear, horror, doubt and later happiness and humor when she accepts her husband’s untimely demise as a reality.

C.J. Williams is her neighbor and friend, Florence, in whom Laureen confides after this life-changing event occurs. Sadly, Florence is caught in a similar abusive situation, but after her initial incredulous response, she accepts Laureen’s story as truth. But she regrets that they cannot realize their pact to escape their abusive husbands together.

As Florence, Williams fills out this supporting role quite well as a good listener and supportive confidante. George Faison’s Firehouse Theatre hosted the NEC production.

Last Sunday, the National Black Theatre mounted a revival of “Accept/Except” on its stage on Fifth Avenue and 125th Street. This history-based, riveting drama combines the past with the present in a tale about an escaped slave.

The festival also featured two play readings that were free to the public: “The Portrait of Earl,” written by Jamal Joseph, and Laurence Holder’s “The General,” based on the life of Gen. Colin Powell.

The Harlem Theater Arts Festival is the brainchild of theater patron and journalist Joan Allen in an alliance with producers Jacqueline Jeffries and Voza Rivers.