Harlem Lab on My Mind
As I prepare my play for a workshop production this summer in Harlem, three memories from the village that blossomed Malcolm, Zora, James Baldwin, Immortal Technique and so many others pervade my mind.
Harlem Memory #1 was at the fried fish place on the corner of St. Nicholas and 145th Street. An autumn night and the line was out the door. Children's Story, a single by rap artist Slick Rick from his 1988 album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, came on the radio. A little brother not older than eleven rapped along. He knew the song from beginning to end.
When I decided that I would write seven original plays that originate from the spirit of seven classic hip-hop albums, a lot of people wanted me to create a play for an album by Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac. I wanted to recognize artists who hadn’t already received the adulation of Hollywood.
After writing Homage 3: Illmatic, a play for the rapper Nas’ classic Illmatic album, I chose The Great Adventures of Slick Rick as the second album to write a play for in my 7 Homages for 7 MC’s cycle. Slick Rick is fun. His lyrics are witty and he presents morals galore in his album’s facetious parables.
I don’t know if the boy in the fish place knew that song was at least a decade older than him. I don’t know if he knew men in their thirties rapped along to Slick Rick when they were his age. But watching him made me want to complete writing Homage 2: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. The boy was a sign I should honor a rapper who’s oral storytelling had transmitted from generation to generation.
Harlem Memory #2 was the first Harlem Lab Production that Changing Perceptions Theater (CPT) produced in the Summer of 2010.
A Harlem Lab Production is a workshop production of a play done in a space in Harlem. Before the emerging Harlem based theater company moves plays to new phases and places, it is important for CPT to present the play to the Harlem community and talk with people in the community about its message, the images presented in the play and its relativity to their lives.
Harlemites were lined up out the door to see CPT’s Harlem Lab Production for my homage to Nas’ album Illmatic.
I remember that summer was also when Radha Blank did her play SEED at Harlem School of the Arts. By fluke both of our productions were running the same weekend, and everybody I knew was either talking about going to see SEED or Homage 3: Illmatic. I appreciated that Radha was adamant about doing her play in Harlem. That was the only time in my career I felt the magic Richard Wesley, Ed Bullins and other playwrights of the Black Arts Movement expressed feeling during the sixties; when Black artists were all focused on making theater to inspire people in Harlem.
When CPT does a Harlem Lab Production of Homage 2: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick this summer, I want to feel that magic again.
Harlem Memory #3 was this spring when I was walking to the C train stop on 116th and Frederick Douglass; the area that people call “New Harlem.”
I passed the newly established outdoor tavern on the corner and glanced at the patrons. I was almost at the subway when a brother came running in my direction and said, "They're shooting on the other block." I looked diagonally across the street and saw a mass of young brothers and sisters running through the street. Then there were cop cars. I looked at the patrons at the outdoor Harlem tavern and they hadn’t moved or blinked. They continued to eat and drink.
I remember thinking a few days later that Harlem is theater.
How do we reach people with different realities and different levels of consciousness?
People running for their lives are in the blind spots of people sitting in bliss.
Who’s your theater for and what spot are you gunning for?
After the Harlem memories, questions pervade my mind.
No matter what I know that I’ll stay driven on this course to bring my 7 Homages for 7 MC's to reality.
It’s time for a Harlem Lab Production indeed.