Who Is Occupying Harlem

Harlem is a neighborhood that has historically been a pressure cooker for the creation of dynamic arts exploring the black experience in America. It was the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. It is a place that is rich with “blood memories” of ancestral liberation etched into its cultural and political fabric. Author Ralph Ellison once said, "Wherever Negroes live uptown is considered Harlem." Even as gentrification challenges this history of Harlem, I still feel that this will always be “home” for artists of color, a global beacon for artists of color to explore, express and claim their cultural and racial existence. Currently, Harlem is in a period of a new Renaissance, but this Renaissance has taken on a different shape. Instead of Fire!! magazine published during the Harlem Renaissance, we have online status updates from Facebook and Twitter. There are now cultural institutions run by people of color and for people of color, instead of white-owned nightclubs whose sole function is to entertain white clientele. This cultural model was born out of a necessity for progressive change a feeling that was pivotal for the creation of the Black Arts Movement. For this HowlRound series, I have been charged with the task of introducing Harlem to you—not a simple undertaking.  So please consider this only as an amuse-bouche to excite your appetite. I welcome you to Harlem Week.

Currently, Harlem is in a period of a new Renaissance, but this Renaissance has taken on a different shape. Instead of Fire!! magazine published during the Harlem Renaissance, we have online status updates from Facebook and Twitter.

a man smiling at the camera
Jonathan McCrory. Photo by Jonathan McCrory.

What is Harlem Week? It is an opportunity to get a glimpse into the psychology and practices that run through the heart of this artistic community. What is our discourse? How are we achieving our goals? Who are the practitioners? And how can you participate in this movement? During this week you will be taken on a seven-day virtual tour through the streets of Harlem through the lens some of the pivotal artistic members within our theater community.

Harlem Week is a great platform for Harlem to give voice, word and flesh to what is happening, however, this means nothing if our voices are not propelling any sort of conversation or action surrounding what is actually going on. We need scholars to help us provide cultural significance to the works of the New Heritage Theatre Group and Take Wing and Soar Productions; we need artists to help continue this conversation by submitting work to develop initiatives like Harlem Stage’s Fund for New Work; and we need patrons who will help give us momentum via in-kind and financial support.

For outsiders, Harlem has historically been a destination for fulfilling cultural voyeuristic desires. It's served as an exotic location to be entertained by African American Culture. This was most prominent during the Cotton Club era of the 1920s and 1930s.  Now, seventy-eight years later, that same voyeurism still exists due to a recent upsurge in tourism in the Harlem community. Every day people from all over the world converge on 125th street to see the epicenter of the world's most famous historical landscape for black arts. However, instead of having entertainment that caters to a foreign palette, arts organizations from The Apollo, to The New Black Fest to Hip Hop Theater Festival to The Movement Theatre Company, are reshaping the perceptions of Harlem through theater. They are creating and showcasing theater that has a focused, articulated voice much different than what I have seen before. As a Producing Artistic Leader and Founder of the Movement Theatre Company (TMTC), our primary focus has been to develop and diversify how artists of color and people of color define themselves and inadvertently we are changing the perception of Harlem. From our TMTC Harlem Nights where we did four theatrical events in non-conventional spaces to our Ladder Series where we showcased three works in development (a play, a musical, a devised piece) at Harlem School for the Arts to our upcoming mainstage production of Harlem-base playwright Harrison David Rivers' look upon our lowliness, a spoken word elegy for a chorus of male voices directed by David Mendizábal, we are giving a diverse representation of the possibilities for art and artists in Harlem. Harlem has become, once again, a theatrical home for many.

This "home" looks something like this: artists of color having the opportunity to perform in a piece that was written by someone who looks like them, produced by a company that is run by a group of individuals who look like them, and then perform in front of an audience of their peers in their neighborhood. This is empowering. Many of the Harlem-based companies and artists, including TMTC, refuse to hold their breath waiting until Broadway comes calling. We can work together Uptown to create our own "Broadway” which celebrates who we are on our terms. That is why there is such a wealth of activity happening in Harlem, including the creation of twenty-seven arts organizations working throughout Harlem right now. These collective organizations are creating engaging work that supports and caters to a variety of different communities that make up Harlem and New York City at large. It is my belief that the hard work of these organizations is re-energizing the pulse of Harlem. We have created opportunities that give artists the space and comfort to explore the vastness of our diversity while also demanding excellence.

There is no way to deny the impact the recession has had on the arts or Harlem. Over the past few years there have been a growing number of organizations and individual producers/artists that have come together to create collaborative producing models. These models have come in a variety of shapes. From The Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Hip Hop Theatre Festival's co-production of the world premiere of SEED by Radha Blank to the formation of Harlem 9 to the event Honoring Excellence in Black Theatre: A Night with Woodie King Jr. to the upcoming new venture between The Classical Theatre in Harlem and The Public Theater with the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau's Detroit '67 to the co-production of the world premiere of Blacken the Bubble by Eric Lockley. All of these experiences have and will give birth to a new fertile ground for the exploration and experimentation of the true collaboration. I have personally seen the benefit of collaboration first hand. As a founder and producer within the collective Harlem 9, I have been able to connect with a collective of producers who have become life-long collaborators—some of whom have helped me create the producing model for the forthcoming fall production of Blacken the Bubble that I will be directing at Harlem School of the Arts' HSA Theater. This production will bring together the talents and producing ingenuity of three organizations (National Black Touring Circuit, Liberation Theatre Company, and SOUL PROductions) and four independent Harlem-based producers (Ezra Ezzard, Bernard J. Traver, Eric Lockley and myself). I hope our collective knowledge will stand as an example of how artists of color can expand the various ways theatrical works can be produced in Harlem in the future.

Harlem is a vast space that can be molded into whatever you need. For me, Harlem is my home. A place I found my artistic voice and a place that has shaped my artistic future. This place is complicated, this place is simple, this place is unique, this place is dynamic, this place is defined only by the people that live in it, this place is universal but black and it welcomes whoever wants to visit.

This Harlem is a vintage Harlem. A Harlem that has not lost its roots, but has a new look grown from the courage of its predecessors. As this week begins I encourage you to participate as much as you can and help us celebrate the new artistic innovation happening in Harlem. Welcome and I personally hope you enjoy what you learn about how we are moving, creating, and thriving.

The Organizations:
New Heritage Theatre Group, Take Wing and Soar Productions, The Movement Theatre Company, The New Black Fest, HADLEY Players, Hip Hop Theatre Festival, Soul Productions, Liberation Theatre Company, Blackboard Reading Series, The Classical Theatre of Harlem, Harlem 9, American Slavery Project, 1st Generation Nigerian Project.

The Institutions:
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Dwyer Cultural Center, Harlem Arts Alliance, Riverside Church Theatre, Harlem School of the Arts, Maysles Cinema, The Shrine World Music Venue, The Studio Museum of Harlem, The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, My Image Studios, Harlem Stage, The Apollo, The National Black Theatre.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

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

Harlem, New York

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

2
Add Comment
Newest First

"This “home” looks something like this: artists of color having the opportunity to perform in a piece that was written by someone who looks like them, produced by a company that is run by a group of individuals who look like them, and then perform in front of an audience of their peers in their neighborhood. This is empowering. Many of the Harlem-based companies and artists, including TMTC, refuse to hold their breath waiting until Broadway comes calling."

Forgive me if it sounds as though I'm saying "been there, done that." However, these exact same sentiments in nearly the exact same words have been said by each generation of theater people since the Black Arts Movement of the 60's forward. More likely, ever since the earliest settlement of African American creative art its the neighborhood these dreams have been expressed. So, as important as geography is and the exigencies of real estate are I respectfully suggest that it is not some much about what has/or hasn't happened to Harlem, the neighborhood as what has happened to Harlemites and the creative geniuses who inhabited it. Those who were confined to certain neighborhoods and labored to survive a hostile city built institutions for the arts that have, unfortunately, not survived. Old as I am, I wasn't around in the true Harlem Heyday of the 1920's and 30's. I lived in Harlem in the declining years of the so-called Black Arts Movement. I was an actress, stage manager, playwright and jill of all trades in theater in Harlem and larger New York. I contend that the renaissance for theater was the period of the 1960's forward more so than the previous era. In this time was The Afro-American Studio Theater/ The 137th Street Players under direction of Ernie McClintock and Ron Walker. There was Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theater, Hazel Bryant and The Richard Allen Center For Culture and Art , Robert Macbeth and The New Lafayette Theater, Douglas Turner Ward et al and The Negro Ensemble Company, Woodie King, Jr. and The New Federal Theater, Gertrude Jeannette and The Hadley Players, Garland Thompson, Pat White and others at The Frank Silvera Writers Workshop, and I'll include the great many theaters - venues and communities -- who were not geographically located in Harlem or even Manhattan such as Marjorie Moon's Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, Joseph Pap and The Public Theater, Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey. My husband is an actor so we made the rounds and missed a great many others. If there are theaters and luminaries I've left out then I hope folks will step up and mention them. What was the name of Samuel P. Barton's theater? My goodness gracious I couldn't remember them all. Dance Theater of Harlem, Walter Turnbull's Boy's Choir of Harlem. Recently, the new york theater community has mourned one of the great creative geniuses of the stage, Glenda Dickerson, who lived and worked in the particular Harlem community as well as the larger world of Harlem. She coalesced many of her brilliant pedagogical concepts in Harlem and the community of theaters and brought them to students at Spelman College and The University of Michigan. Aside from the pleasure of recollecting these names and places I wanted to stress the point that Harlem has had several vibrant theatrical pasts and offered a lot of opportunities for actresses and playwrights and others to hone close to home. Also, it was a magnet as it has always been( and will continue to be). On the ground it is real estate, too. And the winds of whimsical real estate can change art institutions and artists. In the end institutions get sort of played out when their founding geniuses pass. I wish this were not so often the case. Thank you for the opportunity to invoke a few of Harlem, NY's Theater geniuses.