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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.



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Thoughts from the curator

A series discussing the history and current state of theatre in Harlem, New York.

Harlem, New York


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This is truly a powerful piece. It took me back to our first couple of "Know-The-Ledge" classes. The uncertainty of the young boy in memory one reminded me of how many of us, students, did not know what to expect of the class. We may have already possessed many of the principles and morals you taught us, but your direction gave those virtues life. For many of us, "Know-The-Ledge was the first time we were provided with simple but intricate tools that could help us navigate through life.

Memory two: Reminded me of my growth as a writer under your leadership and everyone else's maturation as well. KTL uncovered hidden potential. Therefore many of us had reasons to come to school and work together. We truly began to see the "magic" in the virtue of unity.

Memory three: Was symbolic for our last day in a KTL class room. It was time to put our new tools into practice. Only this time it would be in classroom many of us were familiar with, "Struggle". See it was in your classroom were consciousness grew. With this newly gained consciousness came an infatuation with virtues and a resentment for vices. Then and even now, it is up to us to hold steadfast to our dreams. Using all of the tools we were taught, to turn tragedy into triumph in any situation.

Your piece, in general, is a testament how instrumental the community is in raising its children.

All of this again, was to thank you for a part of my village. The reassured me that life is about saving souls.

Harlem Memory #3 so poignant! Thank you for them all but that one really struck me. The disparities abound and we as artists must shine a light on it.

Shaun, I love this blog and wanted to thank you for sharing it. I particularly am driven to explore this question of how artist can make work and share work that speaks to the growing range of people and cultures represented on Harlem's streets, in our homes and in the spaces we meet. #ILoveHarlem

I concur Bridgit! We had an amazing Weekly Howl today on twitter and Shaun brought up this exact question. i think we need to spend some time diving into this more!!

Thanks Shaun!! This post is so needed! Thank you for speaking truth and thanks for all the work you contribute to the Harlem community and beyond!

Thanks for reading Bridgit! How artist can make work and share work that speaks to the growing range of people and cultures represented on Harlem's streets--- I think a Harlem festival of plays is a great move. Because there are so many voices! African, Muslim, Spanish Harlem!!! Festivals that are inclusive and don't only celebrate theater voices that have been commended downtown Off Broadway and Broadway. That's important. There are people in the Harlem community who act and write plays. Michael Green! The sisters doing Renaissance in the Belly of a Whale! These are community voices! They matter even though they haven't been commended by theaters perceived to be "good and pure." I also think Fred Hudson created a great model of an institution that nurtured writers in the community in the Fredrick Douglass Creative Writing Center, which trained people from the community who wanted to write plays and gave them readings... in the community! It taught that writers don't only come from private colleges and private institutions. It taught that we need to redefine standards of good for ourselves to be free.