“This Way Forward” was the latest offering from the HADLEY Players, a community theater group nestled within the Harlem School of the Arts, 142nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, and founded by 97-year-old Gertrude Jeannette, a denizen of the arts.
Jeannette is the playwright behind “This Way Forward,” starring Colette Bryce, Maxx Carr, Khadim Diop, Albert Eggleston, Ivan Goris, Gary Lawson, Ralph McCain, Louise Mike, Janet Mitchell, Kimberlee Monroe, Ward Nixon, Arjenis Mora, Chantal Ngwa, Malek Ogee, Stacey Pryor, Jared Reinmuth, Sharon Shah, Rodney Sheley, Kalina Singleton, Kalvin Singleton, Donnell Smith, Nzintha Smith, Valarie Tekosky, Joan Valentina and Cookie Winborn. Nixon directed the production as well.
Having written five plays, “This Way Forward” was the first play written by Jeannette per the suggestion and encouragement of Lee Strasberg, an American actor, director and acting teacher who had a profound influence on the American theater and with whom Jeannette studied directing and playwriting. Strasberg was the director of the Actors Studio and the founder of the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and Hollywood. Among his students were Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Dean and Elia Kazan.
Naturally, Jeannette wrote about what she knew, so she used details of having grown up in Arkansas on a large family farm, although there is no specific region mentioned other than the southwest in the play. “This Way Forward” featured a 24-character cast and was based on accounts from Jeanette’s childhood, when both whites and Blacks sharecropped and had large families to help provide the labor to work their farms. Therefore, few children had the luxury of an education beyond the fifth grade.
Every generation wants their children to do better, so Bertha Crawford (Tekosky), the wife of Dan Crawford (McCain), the central characters in the play, was determined to extend the community’s all-Black school to the level of ninth grade. More educated than her husband, Bertha initially had to convince her husband–and then eventually the rest of the community, who were more concerned with survival than education–of the importance of higher education. Although the Great Depression did not hit until 1929, there was a small recession in 1924 and then another in 1927. Naturally, whatever affected whites affected Black people twice as much. However, this play does not dwell on material poverty, but rather poverty of the mind. Bertha saw education as a way of giving Black children opportunity and a choice outside of sharecropping.
Dan went as far as the fifth grade and believed he had all the book learning he needed since he had acquired a large farm. He was generous in giving his time and labor to his neighbors, but he was the kind of proud man who would not ask anything of his neighbors preferring to run his farm primarily by the sweat of his brow and that of his two sons, Herman (Lawson) and Floyd (Daryl Smith).
The Crawford neighbors were played by Eggleston as Rev. Jackson, Nixon as Tom Williams, Pryor as Sarah, Kimberlee Monroe as Minnie and Winborn as Aunt Effie (Louise Mike alternated). The ladies often got together to form sewing bees and gossip. Segregation was still in effect during the era of this play, thus making Aunt Effie essential to the life and death of the community as their midwife, since oftentimes Black folks were barred admittance to hospitals.
While the ladies gossiped, their husbands joked and drank, but the younger men found their recreation occasionally on the seedier side of town, where they found their entertainment in the form of liquor, dice, cards, loose women and the occasional fist fight. This often frightened Bertha, whose ambitions for her older son, Herman, were not shared by him. Her constant efforts to push her son to stay in school only caused him to dig in his heels and misinterpret his mother’s intentions toward him. Eventually this divide brings about tragic results.
This production had a limited engagement, with the last show playing on Sunday, May 27.
Community theaters are struggling all throughout New York, and it is up to us theatergoers and lovers of art to keep our theaters thriving. In doing so, we keep our history alive and our stories told. Open your wallets and send your donations to the HADLEY Players, 204 W. 133th St., New York City, NY 10030, so that we can live into perpetuity through our art forms.