“Mecca Is Burning,” a Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) production that recently closed at the Harlem School of the Arts, is a perfect example of what NEC is famous for: creating work that sounds a clarion call throughout the Black community—in this case, the Harlem community, to address the serious and worsening issue of gentrification.
Of course, because it is NEC, this play took the audience on an apocalyptic journey. It delved deeply into the history of Black Harlem, how that history is kept by the older generation, but how the present generation will not be able to have similar, incredible memories: memories of community as a Black family, memories of the elders, and of cultural connection. This raw work called out all the catastrophes that have overwhelmed Harlem, with white people deciding that this is now their home and working to make Black folks feel unwelcome in their own community.
With a deliberately vivid, candid, raw, and ruth-filled script created collaboratively by Cris Eli Blak, Lisa McCree, Levy Lee Simon, and Mona R. Washington, under the leadership of director Karen Brown, this play hit home in so many ways.
“Mecca Is Burning” gave audiences a beautiful history of Harlem, its people, events, and cherished legacy. This production put on blast the murders of Black people by police. It put on blast the degradation of Black people in their own communities, and the disrespect given by some whites in a neighborhood that they have infiltrated, and the audacity with which they boldly declare that this is theirs.
The audience received the story of four very different families and the racism they face from the changing of the neighborhood. These are families that include professionals like college professors; laborers paying for a roof over their heads and high tuition to send their child to college; a young couple born and raised in the community who realize that it is not what it once was and it could be time to go; and two sisters who are just trying to survive and thrive while living under their parents’ roof.
There was so much rich Black history in this play—a history of Harlem that residents would be very familiar with. Often, people in the audience could be heard agreeing with the descriptions of places and events that were recounted in the production, along with dismay at the recollections of the violence that was committed as a result of deep-seated racism. This play threw everything at you in a way that at times was overwhelming, but that also needed to be said.
It was incredible to be in an NEC audience and get my vessel filled with knowledge, wisdom, and outrage, but also realize that my people are shouting out our names—they are making sure that the atrocities we have experienced are remembered. We as Black people will not go silent into that good night! I truly hope that NEC brings this play back, because it is something to be experienced by everyone and multiple generations.
The actors were absolutely incredible. Benjamin Rowe was complex and conflicted as Marcus, a man who cherished his heritage and the legacy of the Harlem community. Joy Renee, who played his wife Candace, was absolutely marvelous as a “Sista” who was not going to take the racism anymore and was ready to save her community by any means necessary. Reginald L. Barnes played Henry, a widower father, raising his college-student daughter Dominica. He delivered the role with the seriousness required, but also showed that while he had a softer side, he also, as a Black man, always had to be on guard. He showed a love for his people and community that was on another level.
Tatiana Perry gave a stirring performance as Dominica. She was the perfect example of a young person trying to grasp and put into poetic words what was happening in her community. Comparing herself to a blackbird, she wanted to fly and feel safe and explore. But she also realized that this world doesn’t value blackbirds—only white doves.
Kenya Wilson was powerful as Dee’ Ja-Ray, the pregnant wife of Abrian, who was played by Alton Ray. Wilson had moments of joy, love, sadness, regret, anger, and fear. She is an actress whose eyes are one of the most stunning parts of her instrument. She was able to wear her emotions on her sleeve in a way that gripped your soul.
Ray is someone to look out for in the future. This actor had great stage presence and delivered his role with spot-on accuracy. You could enjoy his love and dedication to Harlem, but also understand his deep love for his wife, who was ready to leave to give their baby-to-come a better chance at a safe life.
Ashlee Danielle was delightful as Kyla, the sister to Alicia, who was played by Sharell Williams. Danielle was funny and had a certain charm in the role, while also showing confusion and vulnerability. Williams was captivating as Alicia, the sister who was trying to stay level-headed and calm when the racist actions of white supremacists came to a violent peak in the Harlem community.
“Mecca Is Burning” was a monumental feat to be cherished and revived.