Roger Ross-Williams’ chock full of everything documentary “The Apollo” (now showing on HBO) opens and closes with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Technically, it opens with Coates’ words; footage of actor Joe Morton onstage at the Apollo theater in spring 2018, reciting from Coates’ 2015 bestseller and National Book Award winner “Between The World And Me.” The production, which also featured Common, Angela Bassett, Michelle Wilson, and Black Thought on the first of its two-night stint, functions as The documentary’s home base, always returning to the performance, or rehearsals for it.
Much of Coates’ work reveals the lasting impact of segregation in the United States, and the Apollo Theater, situated as it is in Harlem, partly owes its position as a symbol of Black resilience and the best of Black culture to the U.S. system of segregation. If segregation can be likened to the dark side of the moon then places like the Apollo are its opposite, lighter side. Like HBCU’s and the Black press, the existence of the Apollo and theaters like it such as The Howard in Washington, D.C. or the Uptown in Philadelphia is a partial consequence of segregation and America’s systemic discrimination.
“The Apollo” covers a lot of territory in an energy and info-packed 98 minutes, tracing the theater’s evolution from its opening to the present day. It opened in 1914, the dawn of the first phase of the Great Migration as a whites-only burlesque club. At that time, Blacks accounted for approximately 10 percent of Harlem’s population.
The Apollo started allowing Blacks entrance in 1934 when Blacks were approximately 70 percent of Harlem’s population. White flight, partly enabled by FDR’s New Deal that, as Coates mentions in some of his works, shut out Blacks from getting mortgages in many neighborhoods, ensured Harlem would stay mostly Black for years to come.
Between the film’s migrations back to Coates’ production are archival photos from the theater’s many years in operation. The photos are of music legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. There is video footage of Harlem during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, of Ralph Cooper, the first and longtime host of one of the most well-known features of the Apollo, “Amateur Night.” There are glimpses of the mesmerizing performances by talents as personally charismatic as they were skilled at singing, dance or comedy. There is footage of James Brown’s body lying in state and footage of a young but brave Lauryn Hill’s first performance at the famed venue for which she was apparently on time, but off-key.
There are also interviews such as with Bobby Schiffman, who took over running the theater from his father Frank in the ’50s. Schiffman sheds light on the realities of running an establishment under a racist system, including the opportunities it created for ethnic white immigrants.
Schiffman also details his eventual decision to close the theater in 1977, which reopened under new ownership a few years later. Like many establishments catering to Blacks, the Apollo suffered in the wake of ersatz integration. Audiences exercised their right to go to theaters like Radio City Music Hall or Madison Square Garden.
In addition to Schiffman’s comments, there are images of the infamous booking cards he and his father kept on each of the performers such as Leslie Uggams, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughn, with notes on their perceived value to the theater. Though there is the satisfaction of seeing actual behind-the-scenes dynamics of the running of the Apollo, it is also disturbing. They sound like notes a farm owner might make about his livestock.
There are interviews with the people who are the backbone of the organization, like infectiously enthusiastic Apollo historian Billy Mitchell aka “Mr. Apollo” or Eva Isaacs, a pleasantly uninhibited fixture in the Apollo’s Amateur Night audience. Isaacs is unabashed, to say the least, in her willingness to display her appreciation for the performers. Musicians Pharrell and Doug E Fresh also appear, their visages still reflecting their naked respect and awe for the Apollo.
The Apollo, as alluded to in an appearance by legendary songstress Patti LaBelle in Ross’ film, was the ideal place for Black singers, actors, comedians to be when they wanted to perform in New York City. Performers didn’t have to sleep in their cars and could enter through the front entrance. The Apollo allowed Black creatives to live their dreams while avoiding the type of violence they would incur if they dared pursue their aspirations in white venues. Model Pat Cleveland in her memoir “Walking With The Muses” gave a terrifying account of what could happen if performers breached segregation norms. Ironically, for patrons of the storied institution who weren’t being paid enough to have actual disposable income, the back entrance, The Apollo shows, was the way to go.
After briefly shuttering, the Apollo reimagined itself. “The Apollo” shows how noted attorney Percy Sutton, who took it over in 1981, ushered the Apollo into its contemporary iteration as an official cultural landmark and later, a nonprofit organization. It’s now a venue where someone like Coates can undertake an unprecedented three-year master artist-in-residence program.
In Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of healing as well as music and poetry. Ross Williams’ “The Apollo” with Ta-Nehisi Coates as guide, captures Harlem’s Apollo theater as an enduring symbol of the Black community’s preternatural ability to use art to continually heal itself.