I am thankful for love, life, the pursuit of happiness, family, good friends, good health, to be alive on planet earth, a member of my culture and of service to the human race that I live in the United States of America and for President Barack Obama. How about you?
I am also thankful for Community Works NYC and New Heritage Theatre Group, which, in conjunction with the Interchurch Center and partners, presented the New York premiere of the expanded, comprehensive exhibition “Harlem is … Theater.” The exhibit, which is a public art and education program under the auspices of Community Works NYC, features narratives on the fascinating history of Black theater, along with other relics, photos and memorabilia.
“Harlem is … Theater” is currently open to the public now through February, after which it will then be displayed at the New York Public Library of the Arts at Lincoln Center. The exhibit does an excellent job of portraying the artistry, commitment and rich history of Black theater, where it began and how it continues to evolve.
The artist’s ability to bring a story to life through their portrayal of a vision, a dream or a slice of life is what makes theater so compelling. Black theater, as Stephanie Berry, founder and co-artistic director of Blackberry Productions, stated, “allows Black artists to tell our stories, through our lens and not have someone else misappropriate our stories or take them from us.”
Greetings at the opening reception were made by Barbara Horowitz, founder and president of Community Works NYC. She introduced several of today’s prominent artists, who have contributed to the longevity of Black theater by dedicating themselves to carrying on the art. There to do what he does so well was Darryl T. Downing, ensuring the evening ran smoothly and without a hitch, which it did.
Appearing on stage was George Faison, co-founder and artistic director of the Faison Firehouse Theatre, who said, “In our outreach training program, we listen to the young artists, which is something few adults do.”
In that same vein, Berry said, “We at Blackberry Productions have committed ourselves to cultivating new works by Black writers.”
Also appearing on stage, Ray Gaspard, president of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, said, “Our after-school filmmaking programs are designed to enhance the children’s interest in learning.”
Acknowledged was Gertrude Jeannette, who was not in attendance, as she was preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday Nov. 28. Jeannette is the founder and CEO of the HADLEY Players. She was also the first female licensed in the United States to drive a taxicab—just a bit of trivia. “Our mission,” she stated, “is to provide Harlem with professional theater at affordable prices.” A video clip featuring Jeannette is also part of the exhibit.
Due to a scheduling conflict, Woodie King Jr., founder and producing director of New Federal Theatre and founder and producing director of the National Black Touring Circuit, was unable to attend but was quoted as saying, “If corporations are going to make money in Harlem, they must provide funding to support the local arts organizations.”
Continuing the program, James Pringle, founder of Harlem Theatre Company, noted, “Our goal was to produce actors who were intelligent, well-trained and professional.”
Barbara Ann Teer, visionary founder of the National Black Theatre, once said, “Theater is a healing art form that must be located in an energy center … Harlem has that kind of energy.”
Garland Lee Thompson Sr., co-founder and executive director of Frank Silvera’s Writers’ Workshop, said, “Theater people in Harlem have to collaborate more with each other and gain control of the venues in which we present our works.”
Debra Ann Byrd, producing artistic director of Take Wing and Soar Productions and founder of Harlem Shakespeare Festival, said, “We can change this conversation, locally, nationally and internationally.”
Ty Jones, producing artistic director of the Classical Theater of Harlem, said, “We are out to entertain diverse audiences who desire to be highly engaged emotionally and highly satisfied intellectually by productions that are anchored in the context of the African Diaspora.”
How could you possibly talk about Black theater in Harlem and not talk about Vy Higginsen, Ken Wydro and Higginsen’s daughter Ahmaya Knoelle, co-writers, co-producers and co-directors of “Mama, I Want to Sing” and “Mama Foundation for the Arts.” Both mother and daughter spoke vibrantly about how “Mama’s mission is to preserve, present and promote the culture of African American music and dance.”
Last but certainly not least to be recognized was Voza Rivers, founding member and executive producer of New Heritage Theatre Group, where Jamal Joseph is executive artistic director. Rivers was quoted as saying, “New Heritage is continuing Roger Furman’s mission of presenting quality productions for the community at affordable prices.” Rivers went on to say that he discovered theater when he began his quest to find his voice. His search was to discover how he was going to contribute to society. He then discovered Roger Furman. Rivers, though humble and unassuming, continues to be a beacon in the community not only when it comes to theater, but especially when it comes to being an inspiration to others struggling to find their art.
Furman was a trained actor and theater arts producer who wanted to do more with anti-poverty programs, which were at their height of existence during the 1960s, than just collect a check. Furman wanted theater to be an integral part of the initiative, an art form that would last long after the funds ran out, and the term “anti-poverty” was no longer in vogue. Hence, his spirit lives on at the New Heritage Theatre Group as an inspiration to all aspiring artists and those who can love and appreciate Black theater.
Seeing and hearing those who continue to carry the torch underscores the brilliance of “The Harlem is … Theater” exhibition. Little is known by the general public of New York’s historic Black theaters. The earliest recollection begins with the African Grove Theatre, which is recorded as the first theater to produce dramatic works by and for Blacks. The exhibit will explain how the theater, located on Prince Street, would produce works by Shakespeare. The Black audience would come to the theater after church on Sundays and became a very popular venue for Black entertainment. Intrigued by its popularity, shortly thereafter, white patrons began to visit the theater as well. Appalled at the ability of Blacks to put on such fine productions, they began to cast negative and disparaging remarks and comments, often interrupting the actors on stage, sometimes going so far to summon the police to arrest the actors while on stage. The theater soon closed.
It wasn’t until 1935 that Black theater would emerge again thanks to the WPA Federal Theatre’s Project Harlem Unit. This was followed by the Rose McClendon Players, the American Negro Theater, New Heritage Theatre Group and the New Lafayette Theatre, which was “a proponent of Ritual Theater created to ‘bind together and strengthen Black people so that they can survive the long struggle that is to come.’” That was in 1973.
Until next week … kisses