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.
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.
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.
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.