In 2005, Community Works NYC, a nonprofit arts and educational organization with deep roots in Harlem, staged “Harlem Is … Theater,” a path-breaking exhibition exploring the rich history of Black theater in Harlem and beyond.
Now, the organization has mounted an expanded multimedia restaging of the original exhibit at the Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr. The new staging underscores the exhibit’s implicit claim: The history of the black experience in Harlem and the history of Black Theater in Harlem are inseparable.
That claim’s validity would likely seem obvious to anyone strolling last week through the Center’s exhibition room and corridor galleries, where the exhibit’s artwork, memorabilia and panels tracing the history of blacks in theater in New York City (there’s even a film exploring the subject) are on display. For example, even amid the bustle of its Nov. 19th opening-night festivities honoring nearly a dozen theater veterans, the names of performers, plays, playwrights and theaters mentioned in the expansive display seemed to resound like the muffled beat of a drum.
“In the Wine Time.” “The Devil Catchers.” “Mama I Want to Sing!” “Sarafina!” “The Wiz.” The National Black Theatre, Inc. Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop. New Federal Theatre. Blackberry Productions. Classical Theater of Harlem. Just that list of a few plays and theaters included in the exhibit suggests the army of individual playwrights and performers whose talents are on display: from Ed Bullins, Ntozake Shange, Richard Wesley, and Sonia Sanchez, on the one hand, to such actors as Esther Rolle, Morgan Freeman, Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington and Alfre Woodard.
Barbara Horowitz, Community Works president and founder, said of the exhibit, “It is our hope that this project will be a catalyst for deeper exploration of sometimes-forgotten history. The story of the theaters and legacy keepers in Harlem and beyond is endless . . . we have identified some of the stories that represent so many others. Theirs are not the only stories of theater in Harlem. This project will continue to grow, change and evolve. With more resources and time we can capture through text and multimedia presentations the power of Black theater in Harlem and across the city.
“We are so proud to have begun this journey and feel successful that we have informed those who did not know these stories and built pride in the community about the remarkable achievements of Black theater practitioners and the theaters that continue to tell these important stories,” she added.
Although the main focus of the exhibit is on Black theater activities within Harlem’s boundaries from the 1960s to the present, it also notes that the first productions by blacks in New York City were staged in 1821 in lower Manhattan, where African-Americans then lived, by the African Grove Theater, and featured the renowned Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge.
Emphasizing that tradition remained vibrant in the Harlem arts community through the intervening decades is a significant point of the exhibit, which includes not only theater memorabilia, but art from nine past and currently practicing artists whose works have directly or indirectly contributed to the theater community itself. In addition, the opening-night ceremonies honored eleven women and men who are currently managing theaters and staging plays in the Harlem community.
They are: Sade Lythcott, CEO National Black Theatre; George Faison and Tad Schnugg co-founders/artistic directors Faison Firehouse; Debra Ann Byrd, founder/artistic director Take Wing & Soar; Ty Jones, producing director Classical Theater of Harlem; Stephanie Berry and John Martin co-founders/co-artistic directors Blackberry Productions; June Terry, costume designer the HADLEY Players, representing Gertrude Jeanette, founder and CEO Emeritus; Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro, co-founders and co-producers, and Knoelle Higgensen, program director and music master Mama Foundation for the Arts; Ajene Washington,workshop coordinator, New Federal Theater, representing Woodie King Jr., founding producing Director; Voza Rivers, founding member, executive producer New Heritage Theatre Group.
The exhibit opened at the Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr. (between 119th and 120th Streets) on Nov. 10 and will continue through Jan. 6, 2015, before touring citywide. Individual viewing of the exhibit is available Monday through Friday, from 9:30 AM to 5 PM, and tours are available through arrangement with Community Works NYC.
The exhibition, which includes displays, historical archives, film and original artwork, also features a timeline of 50 years of performances produced by New Heritage Theatre, the oldest nonprofit black theater in the city. As the exhibition tours citywide, Community Works will be sponsoring public performances, discussions and tours. Call Community Works at (212) 459-1854 for information.
The presentation will move next to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, with an opening on February 3rd, followed by programs at the Apollo Theater on February 21st and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in March and April.