Harlem Renaissance Festival
nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
January 19, 2011
Metropolitan Playhouse’s Harlem Renaissance Festival includes multiple potentially exciting shows that deal with the Harlem Renaissance from a range of perspectives. I’m thrilled at the fact that Metropolitan Playhouse is hosting this festival and is supporting artists’ investigation of such a pivotal time in American history. Unfortunately, the first show that I saw, A Block of Time Part 1: Pig Foot Mary Says Goodbye to the Harlem Renaissance, was disappointing; but the second, Harlem on My Mind, was very satisfying indeed.
A Block of Time Part 1: Pig Foot Mary Says Goodbye to the Harlem Renaissance
Let’s begin at “the end.” After the 45-minute show, the playwright and lead actor of the piece, Daniel Carlton, came back out for a talkback. Sadly, the talkback was more engaging than the show. During the talkback Carlton showcased his rich knowledge of history and his ability to be a great guy to talk to share thoughts and ideas. He discussed at length what he admired about some of the people he mentions in the play—Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ailiyah, who helped to fund many Harlem Renaissance artists. It was interesting to see Carlton's passion and love for the era and people that make up the content of his play. However, this same passion was stifled as Carlton seriously struggled to speak his lines throughout the play itself.
This play, which Carlton wrote, is written in verse and it takes a look at Harlem in the 1920s. We are introduced to various characters by Pig Foot Mary, who was a cook and entrepreneur in Harlem. Pig Foot Mary at this particular performance was played by the refreshing Laura E. Johnston. Because the originally cast actress fell ill, Johnston remained on book. However even with the script in hand she brought grace, compassion, sass, and exuberance to Harlem's Pig Feet Mary. Carlton, on the other hand, seemed to display a strong yearning to know what line came next, going so far as to even look over Johnston’s shoulder to read her script and find his lines. Writing verse is difficult and I admire Carlton for going after it, but knowing how to perform verse is equally, if not more, important than the writing. There was no director listed in the program, only an assistant stage manager, so that leaves me to assume that Carlton, in addition to taking on the actor and playwright roles, also took on the role of the director. It's very difficult to pull that many roles off well. As a performer Carlton had lots of energy and seemed most comfortable during comedic moments, but I couldn't enjoy the show sensing that he was insecure about his lines. And furthermore it was hard to follow the stories he was sharing when he would stop at the end of every line to accentuate the rhyme.
The primary narrative that gives the show an arc is Pig Foot Mary’s decision about whether or not to “close up shop.” The show starts with Pig Foot Mary describing her business and how people from all over knew her because of her Pig Feet. Then she starts to introduce some of the people that were her most memorable neighborhood customers. Carlton plays all of these “neighborhood” characters who enlighten the audience on more famous figures from the Harlem Renaissance. Hot Fingers tells us about Langston Hughes, Garveyite tells us about Marcus Garvey. These characters’ stories are interesting and very indicative of the era. From the story of a black man traveling through the South with his white girlfriend, to a recounting of the battlefield during "Wilson's War," the content of the stories gave me a vivid sense of what being black in the '20s may have felt like. Ultimately the content that I could follow was interesting, but the delivery was disappointing.
This was not a tech-heavy piece at all, but the little tech that there was did not work in its favor. Though the lighting was basic, I think there were some errors at the top of the show, that had me confused about where to focus. Interjections of voiceovers from “Langston” and “Paul Laurence Dunbar” and others seem forced, and at my particular performance the audio seemed muffled. And the characters' stories seemed interesting enough without the “voices of the past.” One fun moment that included audience interaction was when Crispus The Number Runner, certainly Carlton’s strongest character, encouraged the audience to dance to “Jump Back,” an upbeat song of the era. This moment was light-hearted, improvised, and fun.
Reflecting on the play, it has potential. The content is historic and educational, yet fun. I’d love to see where it could go if one person wasn’t attached to so many roles—director, actor, playwright, set designer, etc. While one lesson from the Harlem Renaissance is self-empowerment, sometimes we all have to learn that we can’t do it all.
Harlem on My Mind
Harlem on My Mind is a really great evening at the theatre. While remaining fun and light-hearted, the ensemble of six share scenes, musical numbers, and poems that showcase the era of the Harlem Renaissance. The show, directed by Shela Xoregos, has a great flow and gives a very real sense of a community who is bound together by culture.
Within the play there are four scenes written by four different playwrights, and what I enjoyed most about every one of them was that they never got bogged down in "race." If there was one thing that was distinct about the Harlem Renaissance, it was black people telling stories about their own culture. It wasn't an opportunity to talk about racism in America, instead it was an opportunity to be empowered by showcasing and documenting the range of our unique cultural experiences. Harlem on My Mind’s playwrights, Grace Cavalieri, Ade Ademola, Dave DeChristopher, and Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko, are well aware of their characters’ humanity and avoid creating scenes about “issues.”
My two favorite scenes were "Silence of the Land" and "Tell Me Again". “Silence of the Land” by Ade Ademola is reminiscent of an Abbott & Costello skit. Two old buddies, Tom and Dick, can’t seem to agree on anything. Their banter back and forth has Dick wanting silence and insisting that people complain too much when they should just roll with the punches, and Tom wants to figure out how to put the world in order because he “can’t take it anymore.” Actors Andrew Cooksey and Z. Louis Finney have great comedic timing and their characters’ troubled friendship becomes more and more vivid as the scene continues. The piece that follows, “Tell Me Again” by Dave DeChristopher, includes the whole company telling stories to a young girl and concludes with each member of the cast sharing a poem. This section harkens back to the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” At the top of the scene, everyone enters and says hi to the young girl, Lena, and then they engage in friendly competition to see who can tell Lena the best story. The fables and poems that ensue are both entertaining and enlightening, and create a distinct sense of community.
The company is fantastic! The whole cast works together to bring each scene, poem, and song to life. Every one of the actors is a great storyteller who takes the stage and lavishes in their words, from poetry to dialogue. 11-year old Emani Spence stands her ground with the cast of seasoned actors, exemplifying genuine curiosity and amusement as a young orphan girl, Lena. Shela Xoregos’s direction comes off as subtle and natural. Musical transitions don’t feel forced, and highlight the importance of music during the time period. The costumes feel of the era and showcase styles from fancy nightlife wardrobe to work day attire. Regina Cate’s dress which is featured in the last scene certainly “sizzles.” Harlem on My Mind is an endearing reminder of the love, community, and sophistication of Black America in the 1920s & '30s. It’s a wonderful depiction that I hope audiences get to experience for years to come.