Friday, November 14, 2008

A RAGE IN HARLEM: Is the Classical Theatre of Harlem a Black Theatre Company? by Carl Hancock Rux

At the present time the world presents us with a spectacle which is so passionately interesting and so full of anxiety that one wonders how the theatre can keep pace with it.
—Michel Saint-Denis

More than 40 years ago, at the dawn of a turbulent and politically charged decade, an impromptu late-night summit of theatre artists—among them actors Louis Gossett Jr., Esther Rolle and Gertrude Jeanette, director Ed Cambridge and playwright Loften Mitchell—convened in the rectory of the St. Mark’s Church on the Lower East Side of New York City to discuss the (non-existent) state of theatre in Harlem. Their intense conversation was prompted by an audition earlier that evening for Mitchell’s Star of the Morning, a biographical drama about the life and career of the great vaudevillian actor Bert Williams.
A line in Mitchell’s play had startled the modest but insurgent group. In a scene about the disbanding of the Williams and Walker Company (the highly successful turn-of-the-20th-century African-American theatrical troupe founded by Williams and his comedy partner, George Walker), a departing company member is asked, “Where’ll you go now?” He replies, “Uptown. 100,000 Negroes in New York now. Lots of them moving to Harlem—maybe they’ll be needing a theatre.” The playwright recalls hearing those lines read out loud for the first time and noting the response it evoked among the listeners at the audition: “The shoulders of a number of people sagged…a sharp pain stabbed me. I wished the lines had not been written.” According to Mitchell, the line evoked a bitter truth: At the beginning of the 20th century, Harlem boasted a vibrant community of African-American theatre when there were only “100,000 Negroes” in New York City; by 1962 (the year Mitchell met with his colleagues at St. Marks rectory), the city’s African-American population had increased tenfold, but “not one Harlem-based theatre existed.”
Whether or not the collective at St. Mark’s attempted to strategize the creation of a Harlem theatre movement is unclear, but the goal and sentiments of that meeting have stayed alive for many prominent Harlem theatre companies in the years since. The H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players, for instance, still thrives after some 25 years of existence; the nonprofit company was founded by one of Mitchell’s concerned colleagues—the actress, playwright, director and producer Gertrude Jeanette, who originated roles on Broadway in such plays as Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars and Ronald Alexander’s Nobody Loves an Albatross. Jeanette actually began her stellar acting career more than 50 years ago in the basement of Harlem’s 135th Street Public Library, where she began taking acting classes (to cure a speech impediment) at the legendary American Negro Theatre, a training ground for Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, among others.
Building, maintaining and cultivating theatre in Harlem is an inherited tradition; it is shared by other companies who have continued to will themselves to thrive and survive. The New Heritage Theatre, currently co-directed by Vosa Rivers and Jamal Joseph, is said to be Harlem’s oldest African-American not-for-profit theatre company, founded 40 years ago by the late actor/playwright Roger Furman. The Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop—founded in 1973 by playwright/actor Garland Lee Thompson Sr., actor Morgan Freeman and actor/director Billie Allen—developed the early plays of Richard Wesley and Ntozake Shange and continues its reading/critique sessions and festival of emerging playwrights. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre is still located on the block of land it has occupied (and now owns) for over 35 years. Ask any one of these leaders of longstanding arts institutions, and they’ll tell you how difficult it is in today’s economically arts-unfriendly climate. Which makes it all the more surprising that new theatre companies are willing to take on the challenge of bringing theatre arts to the Harlem community.

In the recently restored world of uptown Manhattan, a small theatre company sits sandwiched between a parking garage and an imposing modern concrete structure. Having donned Harlem theatre’s mantel continuum, the five-year-old Classical Theater of Harlem has become one of the most-talked-about theatre companies in New York City, judging from its five Obie awards, 24 AUDELCO nominations, first-place ranking in the New York Times’ annual theatre roundup, Drama League citation as one of “eight theatre companies in America to watch” and Drama Desk of New York’s special-award citation. CTH’s prize-winning production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks was named by the Times as one of the “10 Best Off-Broadway picks” of the 2002–03 season, and the City University of New York recognized the company’s “substantial contribution to American theatre” with its 2004 Edwin Booth Award, thus placing CTH on par with such past honorees as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Founded by Alfred Preisser and Chris McElroen, the not-for-profit CTH is currently in residence at the Harlem School of the Arts (a nonprofit cultural center that offers after-school classes in the arts), where it utilizes the talents of both student and professional actors.
CTH has pulled off what is perhaps its greatest achievement, though, without citations or medals of honor—the company has developed what began as a supportive community-based audience into one of the most diverse theatregoing audiences in New York City.
The bloodline of ideas passed down from former Harlem arts movements clearly courses through the veins of CTH, whose first production, a feverish, volatile staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, took place in 1999. This past season’s productions, in fact, echo the vitality of performances from Harlem eras past. Obie–winner Ty Jones’s in-your face-brilliance in The Blacks and Gwendolyn Mulumba’s masterfully layered Mother Courage in a revival of the Bertolt Brecht classic bring to mind those scenes of notable-actors-at-the-beginning-of-their-careers as captured in Bert Andrew’s historic photographs: Cicely Tyson at the feet of Roscoe Lee Brown at the Harlem YMCA in Vinnette Carroll’s 1957 Dark of the Moon, or Moses Gunn and Frances Foster in (THE MIDST OF A VIOLENT SCREAM) from Negro Ensemble Company’s 1968 premiere of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll—performances and plays that now seem to have come up from the sidewalk of a city long passed.
Architecturally speaking, however, CTH’s headquarters at the Harlem School of the Arts does not measure up to the glory of its theatrical ancestors. An unadorned square brick structure with a plain steel slab door, the HSA building is a far cry from the now-forgotten landmarks that exist only in folklore and silver-gelatin prints. Except for the longstanding Apollo Theatre, most of Harlem’s proud Beaux-Arts structures, which once boasted elaborately carved Gothic corbels gilt in gold, have given way to Starbucks and Ian Shrager–inspired cocktail bars for the hip-hop elite. Then again, Harlem has always been a community of transition, one that seems to easily redefine itself according to the ever-changing dialect of its streets.
Forty-one-year-old Alfred Preisser, CTH’s artistic director, is as unassuming a figure as one could imagine. Once an actor and visual artist, he is the gruff-voiced man with thinning black hair who, when you arrive to see one of his productions, is crouched down in the HSA theatre’s ticket booth, counting change and searching through the guest list. This is hardly the image most have of an innovative theatre director on the cutting edge. Preisser’s co-founding partner, executive director Christopher McElroen, is 10 years his junior, a soft-spoken guy in baseball cap, jeans and sneakers who typically collects tickets at the door. With his sandy-blond goatee and perpetually casual manner, McElroen may strike you as more of a backstage techie than an agitprop-influenced director focused on integrating technical design with the entropic language of nonlinear drama. Playing the role of artists, however, seems less important to these two men than realizing their ambitions of cultivating a new experimental classical theatre company born of their Shakespeare workshops with HSA students.
“I want people who don’t even speak English to see and understand the plays,” says Preisser, who was directing actor/filmmaker D.J. Mendel’s Citrus Bird for the Ground Floor Theater Lab on Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he first met McElroen in 19XX. Formerly a theatre major at New York City’s Pace University, where he honed his directing skills staging Edna St. Vincent Millay’s anti-war verse drama Aria da Capo, McElroen was in the throes of launching his own professional career. “While I was at Pace, I’d become fascinated with all aspects of theatre from design to performance,” McElroen says. The two men found agreement in their aesthetic approach to theatre, and after Preisser began teaching at the Harlem School of the Arts, McElroen joined him there to teach technical design (Preisser is now director of the school’s theatre department). The intensely driven duo received moral support and free space from the HSA administration and embarked upon their dream with a small combined life savings, creating jobs as well as on-the-job-training not only for the students, but for unemployed actors, musicians and designers throughout the city.
Not unlike performance-theory-driven companies such as the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, CTH is informed by what appears to be a consistent philosophy of style. This CTH style, an intermingling of the physical diction of everyday life with a kind of lyrical delirium, has confounded expectations in Harlem; indeed, it confounds the expectations one may have of a regional theatre operating outside Manhattan’s more mainstream theatre districts. Is the latent postpartum depression of CTH’s 2002 production of Euripides’s Medea not closer to stoop-side naturalism than to anything mythological and tensely knotted? Does not the anti-futuristic vision of Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s The Crazy Locomotive in CTH’s spring 2003 production—which featured the violent crash of a steam engine locomotive and a passenger train—speak to the tangible collision between urban development and urban blight in Harlem?
Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show, which McElroen directed three versions of in the fall and winter of 2003, is CTH’s crowning production, and its most exemplary. The initial production was abruptly shut down due to 9/11. The second enjoyed a sold-out limited run in Harlem. The director says he embarked upon the controversial play enthusiastically but with some trepidation. “Before we could stage anything, we talked not just about the Genet text but about the actors and their own feelings and experiences in relationship to white people,” McElroen recalls. “I did a lot of listening, because the experience of the play”—the vaudeville-like interaction between the black actors and white audience members that prompted Genet to dub his play “A Clown Show”—“had to come from the actors.” The community and critical reaction to McElroen’s production was so strong that it moved from Harlem to downtown’s Classic Stage Company, where it continued to play to sold-out houses.
But CTH’s success, as well as its avant-garde ethos, has elicited a guarded reaction from certain quarters of the community. Some observers have questioned the very idea of a so-called classical experimental theatre and its value to the daily realities of urban Harlem dwellers. “The shows are excellent, ” exclaims audience member Patrick Synmoie, a Jamaican-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who has become a recent CTH fan, “but you have to wonder whether or not the local community gets it.”
This particular criticism was certainly borne out during the winter 2004 run of CTH’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. Replete with dense politics of allegorical formalism, Derek Walcott’s Caribbean play draws its inspiration from the postcolonial climate of the playwright’s native St. Lucia, the theories of Jean-Paul Sartre and the writings of French sociologist Frantz Fanon. Broadway song-and-dance man André DeShields took on the role of the play’s protagonist Makak (French patois for “ape”), a mountain hermit plagued by dreams and in search of a romanticized Africa. CTH’s production had DeShields remain on stage throughout the three-hour performance, even during intermission. A sizeable portion of the show’s audiences were first-time theatregoers, many of them hailing from the other boroughs of Manhattan, a fact that was no surprise to DeShields. Culling new audiences has not been—and will not be—difficult for CTH, he insists, because “the artistic landscape is barren—there’s nothing else out there.” Asked if Walcott’s brand of magical realism carries the potential to attract contemporary Harlem audiences, first time theatregoers or not, De Shields declares, “People need this kind of theatre, even if they don’t know anything about it. They participate in learning something about themselves. It’s about them.”
Preisser agrees: “The classical experience of Medea or Oedipus Rex is relevant to now,” he avows, adding that “any company that has ‘classical’ in its title must do new plays” as well. Preisser says that it is his intention to plan seasons of familiar European classics mixed with original plays by up-and-coming playwrights and by company and community members. “We’re still cobbling things together, talking to other directors about doing other plays,” Preisser continues. He knows that words like “classical” and “experimental” can be problematic—even though he uses them. “ ‘Experimental’ is still one of those dirty words,” he concedes. “We’re only experimenting [in that we’re] trying to get to the heart and essence of what the play is.”

In The Rediscovery of Style, the French drama theorist Michel Saint-Denis describes the growing fascination a working-class, Depression-era audience in England had with classical theatre. He argues that a pedestrian audience had suddenly become attracted to theatre in a time of socioeconomic difficulty, because “poetry is better able to express reality than the so-called realistic language of everyday life.” “Style,” he writes, is the only “penetrating instrument of authentic realism.”
For theatre to be a necessity to its community, in other words, it must provide not only entertainment but also a language that speaks to, for and with its relevant populace. At once a place and an idea, Harlem is a space that has undergone continual transformations since its establishment by Dutch settlers almost 350 ago. From its beginnings as Dutch and British colonial farmland to its days of opulent estates occupied by some of New York City’s most prominent families (like the Bleeckers and the Beekmans), Harlem remade itself many times over before it would begin, in the early 1900s, its long run as the internationally renowned mecca of African-American art and culture.
Then came the neighborhood’s postwar decline into crime, poverty and poor housing. Today, as the 21st century dawns, Harlem’s ethnically, economically and socially diverse residents are experiencing a highly publicized revitalization. This most recent transformation can be attributed to a booming real-estate market that has launched luxury housing, community development funding, new arts organizations, employment growth and—arguably—the expansion of ethnic and economic gentrification. And CTH may well be Harlem’s latest contribution to its own restored legacy. But the “recovery” and “rehabilitation” have a long way to go. Harlem’s unemployment rates are still 10 percent higher, and its average household income is still 50 percent lower, than in the rest of Manhattan. Its infant mortality rate is double the citywide average. The incidence of AIDS and drug-related deaths are also three times higher than in the rest of the city. As the worth of its once-derelict brownstones climbs rapidly toward seven figures, longtime Harlem residents complain of being priced out of their homes, making gentrification a sore point for many.
With issues such as these that have yet to be tackled, what is the ultimate role of community theatre in Harlem? There was an extended moment, from the mid-’60s into the ’70s, when—despite high crime rates, poor housing and extreme poverty—a sociopolitical and artistic renaissance seemed ready to blossom, and the promise of a vibrant theatre scene in Harlem loomed on the horizon. As Lofton Mitchell inquired two years after the strategic meeting at St. Mark’s Church (in his 1964 essay, “The Negro Theatre and the Harlem Community”), is it “possible to build a Harlem community theatre in an era when community theatres are almost non-existent”? In attempting to answer, Mitchell warned that African-American theatre artists who work “outside of Harlem” will only be able to work in plays “written by whites dealing with [areas] of Negro life receptive to white audiences.” Mitchell also lamented that American theatre remains “a middle-class luxury wherein the playwright speaks…to an expense-account audience.” He closed his essay by advising that “one of the most needed theatre workers at present is the Negro producer, [because] he could utilize the rich dramatic history of these times. Wonderful artists and the splendid audiences can be attracted if the theatre speaks to them in terms of the truth of their daily lives.”
What may seem unclear today is whether Mitchell was calling for a theatre in Harlem—or for a specifically black theatre in Harlem.

Perhaps the most credible threat that exists within Harlem is synchronous with the credible threat that exists to blackness as such—the conclusion…that culture = race…. —Milton S. Curry, “Black Futurism: Architecture as Signifier”

If the theatre is ever to compete with the school or the pulpit for cultural influence, the success of a community-based artistic renaissance in Harlem will be contingent upon a solid, long-term commitment from its community. But who is the Harlem community? In Harlem World: Metropolis as Metaphor, the catalogue to the Studio Museum of Harlem’s recent architectural exhibition, architect Milton S. Curry observes that the neighborhood’s future as an urban cultural enclave is tied to the synonymous notions of Harlem as a cosmopolitan locus and of blackness as its primary face. Indeed, race is one of the main apprehensions people have voiced regarding the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s artistic directors: Both McElroen and Preisser are white and hail from upstate New York.
Other observers have posited race as a non-issue. Longtime CTH admirer Melanie Joseph, artistic director of the Foundry Theatre on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, only learned of Preisser and McElroen’s ethnicity DURING THIS INTERVIEW. “It doesn’t matter,” Joseph asserts matter-of-factly. “Good art is good art. That’s what I care about. It would be disappointing to learn that [the ethnicity of the theatre’s leaders] is an issue for anybody.”
But for African-American actress Trazana Beverly, a Striver’s Row resident, ethnicity is definitely a concern. One of the few Harlem-based artists willing to go on record with her doubts about CTH’s founders and their company of young black actors, Beverly offers her opinion that people who run arts institutions in African-American neighborhoods should do so equipped with a “shared experience of that community.” “It is important,” she explains, “that African-Americans who work with and/or patronize community theatre in Harlem get from that experience the implicit understanding of who we are and what we are, an understanding that taps into the bloodline of our community.”
Beverly, the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for dramatic performance, has solid avant-garde credentials as well: She trained in the late ’60s at New York University’s School of the Arts as well as in workshops with Polish drama theorist Jerzy Grotowski. Having recently formed her own theatre company (whose mission—to re-imagine the classics with experimental overtones for new black audiences—echoes that of CTH)—Beverly contends that, while “it behooves us to expose our people to that body of work that is classical and experimental,” community-based theatres have a “social obligation” to reflect their community’s reality on stage.
“Most black audiences, if they are not already versed in theatre, have no formal knowledge of classical theatre when they first come to see it,” she says. “It is a time-proven fact that anyone who is engaged by poetry, debate, ritual or movement will find much to glean from classical works”—which is why it is an imperative in her own company’s productions that the actors not alienate the audience with “conservatory-fed westernized interpretations of the classics.”
“When we first open up the plays of Greek theatre [to new African-American audiences], for example,” Beverly continues, “we have to also let that community know where Greek theatre came from—to introduce them to the African theatre that Greek drama grew out of.”
In founding CTH, Preisser and McElroen seem to have been inspired to fashion a theatre company out of a shared aesthetic more than out of any pre-supposed social responsibility. “I admit I was a little naïve,” Preisser says today. “I met some talented people, and we got together and staged plays the way we’d always wanted to. That’s it. I didn’t think about stepping on someone else’s territory or turf.”
Nevertheless, the mission statement Preisser and McElroen fashioned for CTH declares the company exists to “create and nurture a new, young and culturally diverse audience for the classics; and to heighten the awareness of theatre and of great art in Harlem, thus helping to re-establish Harlem as a theatrical mecca.”
“We will always be committed to the community of Harlem,” McElroen states adamantly. “We will always have a predominately African-American cast in our plays because that is Harlem’s identity.”
One CTH production that has troubled African-American theatre artists like Beverly is the company’s inaugural staging of Macbeth, which, according to CTH’s press statement, was “the first professional production of Macbeth in Harlem since the historic 1936 production directed by Orson Welles.” The parallel between Welles’s Macbeth in Harlem and CTH’s does not sit well in many quarters. (CTH’s Macbeth will perform this summer at the Bonn Biennale in Germany, along with such celebrated New York–based theatre companies as Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, in Charles L. Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica; the Wooster Group, reprising its Phaedra variation, To You the Birdie; and the Foundry Theatre, mounting Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales.)
A brief detour into Welles’s Macbeth is instructive. Funded by the Works Project Administration through the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit, Welles’s experimental production with an all-black cast was the brainchild of John Houseman, who had earlier directed Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, also with an all-black cast. The Federal Theatre Project’s aim during the Depression was to provide work for unemployed artists, as well as to produce “free, adult, uncensored” theatre. Houseman’s idea was to produce a unit of all-black actors in classical plays “without concession or reference to color.” The actors of the Negro Unit, as well as Housman’s co-director Rose McClendon, one of the most acclaimed black actresses of the time, are said to have requested a white stage director for their first classical production so as to give it “more credibility.” In his directorial debut, Welles turned Shakespeare’s witches into voodoo priestesses and the protagonist into an Emperor Jones–like character gone mad. The production, replete with African drummers and jungle backdrop, was a huge success, inspiring many black theatre companies to stage their own versions of the classics.
Under Houseman, the Federal Theatre Project produced several plays by black writers as well as works pertaining to black Americans, such as Big White Fog, a Theodore Ward drama about the integration of black and white laborers. Some plays by white writers regarding African Americans (such as Black Empire by Christine Ames and Clarke Painter, a play about the negativity of Haitians and voodoo) were green-lighted, while some by African Americans (such as Troubled Island by the acclaimed poet Langston Hughes) were not. Inspired by the success of Welles’s Macbeth, the Seattle branch of the Negro Unit staged Lysistrata, but it was shut down by the WPA for being too “risqué,” and when African-American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham proposed to create a ballet based on the life of Henri Christophe, she was rejected. The expected resurrection of the “Negro theatre” did not take hold. As America approached war, Congress shut down the FTP in 1939, and the WPA appropriations bill forbade the funding of all theatre projects. Without government subsidy, the Negro Unit and most black troupes died out quickly. U.S. theatrical unions would not grant entry to any of the black theatre technicians trained by the FTP, and African-American actors returned to the minor comic-relief or servitude roles they were customarily offered in white shows.
“I understand the feelings people have about the history of Welles’s Macbeth,” Preisser empathizes. “Welles came, did his thing, and he left. But we’re not going anywhere. We’re in this for the long run, and we’re here to stay.”
Preisser worries about perceptions of CTH created by misrepresentations in the media. “We don’t want people to think we’re doing anything great because we’re two white guys who have come to Harlem to save anybody by bringing theatre uptown,” he declares. He is miffed with articles that “refer to our actors as if they’re untrained. We haven’t pulled anybody off the streets. We teach acting at Harlem School for the Arts, and we employ actors who have studied their craft at Ivy League institutions”—such as company member Michael Early, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama who has taught at Vassar College and the British American Drama Academy—“as well as veteran actors who have been in this business a long time.”
Feature articles in the mainstream press have had an impact on CTH’s audience demographic. The theatre’s increasing exposure and popularity have encouraged the attendance of theatre-savvy downtown audiences, and in the opinion of at least some CTH regulars, this is a disincentive for the community-based audience the theatre had built for itself. Actress Gwendolyn Mulumba, a Harlem resident who starred in CTH’s Mother Courage, allows that she can relate to some of the “frustrations” expressed to her by community members: When she appeared in the first production of The Blacks, she says, the show was sold out to a “strong, community-based audience.” “By the time we did Mother Courage,” she notes, “the audience was predominately white and from outside the community—that seemed to be a problem for some black people.” Mulumba recalls what one Harlem community member said to her after attending a white-audience-dominated performance of Mother Courage: “Something has to be done about this.”
CTH’s artistic directors are, in fact, looking for new ways to appeal to Harlem locals and to clarify their role to the community, as well as the identity of their company. Preisser, for instance, does not take it lightly when the media refers to CTH as a “black theatre company,” regarding the moniker as “insulting to the integrity and history of great black theatre companies like the New Federal Theatre and the now-defunct Negro Ensemble Company.”
Mulumba counters that, in her experience, when people “talk about CTH, they talk about it as a black theatre company because the bulk of the talent is African American. ” As Sugar Hill resident and cultural critic Greg Tate argues, “Putting a bunch of black people in a theatre does not make it a black theatre—but in America, the one-drop theory applies. [CTH] can’t help but be thought of as black theatre: Even with two white guys running it, it doesn’t make it not a black theatre.”
However, Preisser strongly confirms: “We are not a black theatre company. We are a Harlem theatre company.”
Preisser may have his own idea of what a black theatre company is, but the term itself has remained a crucial point of argument among members of the black theatre community. At the height of black nationalist politics of the mid-to-late ’60s, playwright Larry Neal proclaimed the Black Arts movement to be the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the black power concept,” a more aggressive politic born out of the civil rights movement. The Black Arts movement encouraged a black theatre reliant upon revolutionary politics, race pride, community commitment and revolutionary action. Black theatres cropped up all over the country, especially in New York City, among them Woody King’s New Federal Theatre (founded over 30 years ago and still in operation) and Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company in lower Manhattan, and, in Harlem, the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (or BART/S), founded by Amiri Baraka, and Robert Macbeth’s seminal New Lafayette Theatre.
Macbeth produced plays inspired by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus and introduced the work of Ron Milner and Athol Fugard to Harlem. New Lafayette’s most famous playwright, Ed Bullins, (WHO, WHILE CHAMPIONING BLACK REVOLUTIONARY THEORUM IN HIS PLAYS), rendered a highly stylized and politicized urban theatre that landed somewhere between the in-your-face dramas of the Black Arts movement and the less confrontational plays of downtown Manhattan’s more mainstream theatres. In Ed Bullins; A Literary Biography, Samuel A. Hay suggests that Bullins “helped to change the kill whitey rhetoric in Black Revolutionary drama and the cussing and fussing in Black Experience drama.” Baraka, on the other hand, called for “poems that kill,” and other members of BART/S would come to criticize Macbeth’s New Lafayette for being too “western” in ideology and form. For his part, Macbeth was no fan of Baraka’s plays or his definition of black revolutionary theatre.
The question of black theatre authenticity has been a similar point of contention. Critical accolades did not shield Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company from skepticism on this score. In a 1968 interview in Black Theatre magazine, Baraka said of the NEC, “It’s significant that in their first initial season they did a couple of plays by white people and an African—not one Black writer—so that’s corny…for them to even try to front that off as a Black theatre.” The same year, Peter Bailey, in a Negro Digest essay titled “Is The Negro Ensemble Company Really Black?”, questioned the commitment of Ward’s company to black revolutionary politics as well as its financial support by white funders. Bailey ascertained that, ultimately, “The Negro Ensemble Company, despite its claims, is not black theatre. It may be interesting theatre; it may be good theatre; but to call it black theatre would be considerably stretching the definition.”
Bullins, who initially refused an invitation to participate in a 1968 panel on black theatre at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., attended nonetheless, and reported on it for his now-defunct Black Theatre magazine. Commenting on Michael Schultz, who participated as a representative of the NEC, Bullins wrote, “…the O’Neill people wanted and knew the several Blacks who had somehow slipped into their limited and segregated fields of vision, possibly through well-chosen backstage doors; and that’s all they wanted—to talk politely to colored people about Black Theatre…Black Theatre cannot be polite; for the nature of Black Art and Theatre is its essential threat to the status quo white Western Civilization. Or Black Theatre can be as polite as an executioner can be to the condemned.”
To say there was discord lurking behind the black theatre movement’s unified front is an understatement. Yet, despite this raging debate over its black-theatre credentials, the Negro Ensemble Company endured to become one of the most important African-American theatre companies in history. And other companies formed out of the Black Arts movement—including the National Black Theater and Frank Silvera’s Writing Workshop—continue to serve their community with professional productions and training programs. Others of the revolutionary black theatres formed in Harlem 30 to 40 years ago did not survive the economic challenges, internal conflicts and political controversy that eventually darkened their stages. In January 1968, a mysterious fire burned down Macbeth’s New Lafayette Theatre; the company took a temporary hiatus and relocated, but with severe funding challenges, it closed permanently in the early ’70s.
Any criticism or controversy the Classical Theatre of Harlem may face should be regarded as an initiation rite into the heritage of Harlem theatre. Cultural reflection stirs cultural involvement, which stimulates cultural growth—and, in its brief five years, CTH seems a confirmation of that maxim. The company has created more than 350 temporary jobs for local residents and given scores of New York City high school students their first jobs in professional theatre. In addition to providing arts training and employment, CTH has become one more valuable resource for African-American actors who struggle to cultivate their craft. As Gwendolyn Mulumba testifies, she cherishes her experience with CTH if only for the opportunity it affords her to “do good work in the community I live in”—and for her family and friends to “see good theatre that is affordable.” “I needed to heal myself from the rejections I experienced and to decide whether or not I was prepared to endure the harsh realities of being a black actress in an industry that, more of than not, will not take advantage of my training,” she says.
Moreover, CTH’s achievements must be viewed in a wider context, for the survival of community-oriented theatre in a media-driven, economically challenged, wartime climate comes with few formulas. As Greg Tate contends, “You have to commend anybody who creates a regional theatre company, especially in Harlem. With a few exceptions, black people haven’t been able to develop and sustain theatre in New York, it really is such a white domain.”
It may or may not be accurate to classify CTH as a black theatre. What is clear, though, is that this Harlem company has forged a strong relationship to its community; it has, therefore, inherited both historical and cultural elements from that community, for better or worse. Just as blues, jazz, rock-and-roll and hip-hop are not only artistic inventions of the African-American community but also authentic American art forms, so has theatre from within Harlem’s African-American community left an identifiable handprint of content, form and style that can be studied and amended as easily as any genre in American modernism. To deny that CTH descends from the panoply of Harlem’s arts movements would be misguided; even the (TITLE CASE; Black Theatre Movement) finds its resurgence in CTH’s risk-taking expressionistic aesthetic. Grounded in the experiences of its Harlem-based actors, CTH productions might be thought of as a hybrid of Art Povera and poetic modernism—a poor theatre of experimentation, lavished with sculptures and installations of bodies as cultural artifacts in movement. DeShields’s Makak in CTH’s Dream on Monkey Mountain, for instance, could just as easily have been any number of men you’ve passed on the street, reciting poetic delusions of urbanity. The war-torn, draped-in-heavy-wool city of McElroen’s Mother Courage locates the audience anywhere between occupied Poland and the hostile police force evacuation of Harlem’s own African street vendors during the Giuliani era. The responsive, reactionary women stomping out the insurgency of dreams from behind the gate of their incarceration in CTH’s adaptation of Euripides’s The Trojan Women resonates with the raw spitfire one might have seen in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf—(OR) as Shange herself put it, (DANCING) “to demand of [their own] sweat a perfection that could continually be approached but never known.” Preisser defines his directorial style as somewhat similar to his painting style—“large canvases with lots of violence; sensation underneath words.” His description calls to mind Antonin Artaud’s Surrealist theories of a sub-verbal, physically primal theatre of cruelty—or, as defined by Baraka, a violent theatre of “actual explosions.”
With this carefully executed performance style of spontaneous combustion coursing through its veins, CTH has a vitality possessed only by young theatre companies who’ve had to steal their existence. The void the company seems to fill for its audiences and critics may have less to do with innovative theatre in Harlem as much as it has to do with innovative theatre, period.
André DeShields, who wants to work with CTH some time in the near future on a play of his own based on the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, avows that he is not at all worried that the patrician-sounding label “classical” may prove to be the very thing that distances the company from local audiences. Recalling Michel Saint-Denis’ observation about new audiences attending Shakespeare’s plays, DeShields describes the Harlem populace that is being exposed to poetic theatre for the first time as thirsty for it: “They come because they are drawn to it, like you are drawn to water when you are dry.” DeShields regards with esteem the hard work Preisser and McElroen have put in to build a new theatre in Harlem. “It doesn’t matter who fills the void,” the veteran actor says calmly. “What matters is the restoration of a legacy.”

The history of theatre in Harlem is a lofty one. Evidence of historic Harlem theatres and opera houses—such as the Alhambra, the Crescent, the Lafayette, and the Renaissance—have either long succumbed to demolition, or remain hidden behind plywood and scaffolding. Most of these theatres, when first opened, were vaudeville houses for white audiences only. In the late 1890’s, New York’s African-American population totaled close to 5,000,000. African Americans, who lived in Manhattan’s Tenderloin district (west side of Manhattan between 20th and 64th Streets. At the turn of the 20th century, an area within the Tenderloin on West 53rd street was dubbed “Black Bohemia”, the center of black artistic life where many prominent black vaudevillians , musicians and writers hung out or lived at the Marshall Hotel) fled their communities at the dawn of race riots of 1900 and moved uptown to a Harlem then dominated by second and third-generation Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrant families. The African American’s theatrical presence in New York developed decades before. As early as 1821, the African Grove Theatre staged the plays of Shakespeare in Greenwich Village (amid much racist contention). Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white American performer, introduced the character of “Jim Crow” a singing and dancing slave, to mainstream theatres. Soon, his “Coon Show” paved the way for the form of entertainment known as minstrelsy, performed by white entertainers made up to look like grotesque cartoon characters of slaves. These musical impersonations and caricatures would be the prevailing theatrical depiction of African Americans for decades, well into the 20th century where the tradition of blackface (burnt cork make-up used to create a shiny black countenance) was continued in Hollywood movies (besides Al Jolson, see Shirley Temple, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Marion Davies, Fred Astaire) and even in dramatic plays on Broadway (ie., in the 1930 Broadway production of “Scarlet Sister Mary”, a drama about blacks living on the Gullah sea islands, an entire cast of white American actors, including it’s star, the great Ethel Barrymore, appeared in blackface to portray the unwed mother of numerous children, one of whom–Unex (short for unexpected) comes home to die. Other characters are described as “Picadilly accented husband snatchers”, and “old darkies”. Theatre critic Gerald Bordman wrote, “The day when whites could routinely play blacks had gone”, noting that the all black cast of Green Pasteurs was playing across the street.)

In 1885, The Astor Place Colored Tragedy Players staged performances in Greenwhich Village. Three years later, African American producer/writer, Bob Cole created the musical comedy, “A Trip To Coon Town”–performed at the Grand Opera House on 23rd St., and Eighth Avenue–the first commercially successful show written, produced, directed and performed by blacks in New York. Broadway actor Bert Williams moved to Harlem during the Industrial revolution and performed at the Crescent Theatre on 135th Street. The Lincoln Theatre, which opened on 125th Street in 1909 as a silent movie/live stage show house, also becomes the first integrated theatre in Harlem when African-American playwrights Eddie Hunter and Henry Cramer helped forge a black theatre movement with their dramatic plays that same year. Anita Bush formed the Anita Bush Players at the Lincoln theatre (later to become the Lafayette Players when they move to the Lafayette theatre) in 1914 with the help of actor Charles Gilpin, performing Shakespearean plays and Broadway standards. By 1916, black dramatists and theatre companies sprung up all over Harlem, largely inspired by the success of two African American playwrights, Angelina Grimke and Willis Richardson. Grimke’s “Rachel” was produced by the NAACP in Washington DC in 1916 and Richardson’s “The Chip Woman’s Fortune” performed at the Lafayette Theatre and on Broadway in 1923 in conjunction with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”. Richardson’s play is the first drama by an African American to appear on Broadway (Garland Anderson’s play, Appearances becomes the second in 1925.) Harlem based actors also began to receive broader recognition. In 1920, the Theatrical Owners and Bookers Association was formed as touring circuit for African American performers. performingAfter garnering attention for his dramatic work with the Lafayette Players, Charles Gilpin was cast as the protagonist in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1920, making his performance the first dramatic production in an all-white theatre to star an African-American actor. That same year, Paul Robeson starred in the all black cast play Simon the Cyrenian by Ridgely Torrence's (a white poet) at the Harlem YMCA, where he was spotted by O’Neill (as well as Augustin Duncan, the director brother of dancer, Isadora, who first brings Robeson to Broadway and then to England in a 1922 production titled “Voodoo”) and cast in the 1924 production of his “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” at the Provincetown Playhouse, and The Emporer Jones on Broadway in 1925. Harlem based dramatic actress Rose McClendon starred in Paul Green’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Abraham’s Bosom at the Provincetown Playhouse as well. Several black dramatic theatre companies sprung up in Harlem during the next two decades, including W.E.B. DuBois’ Krigwa Players (formed in 1926, later to become the Harlem Experimental Theatre), staging plays by black playwrights focused on issues such as lynching, and the abolition of slavery, and The National Colored Players, founded in 1929 at the West End Theatre on St. Nicholas and 125th street. That same year, Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman’s play Harlem; A Melodrama of Negro Life opened on Broadway. In the early 30’s, Zora Neal Hurston writes a series of skits for a Broadway variety show also featuring comedian/monologuist, Moms Mabley, who had begun her long tenure at the Apollo Theatre where she appeared more times than any performer in history. Broadway actress Rose McClendon formed the Negro People’s Theatre in Harlem in 1935 (later to become the Rose McClendon Players after the actress’ death in 1936, coached by the Russian émigré director Theodore Komisarejevsky, from the Moscow Arts Theatre) mounting agitprop dramas such as an all black version of Clifford Odet’s “Waiting for Lefty” at Harlem’s Rockland Palace. McClendon also spearheaded Harlem’s Negro Unit of the FTP, and after the successful Broadway production of his play, Mulatto in 1935, Langston Hughes formed the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1938 in a loft on 125th street. (Gertrude Jeannette and Robert Earl Jones–father of actor, James–were members. Beginning in the late 60’s, the loft became the home to the Frank Silvera’s Writers Workshop, who occupied the space for r twenty five years.) Frederick O’Neal–after the disbanding of McClendon’s company– formed the legendary American Negro Theatre at the 135th St. Library, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Former McClendon players Ossie Davis joined other ANT alumni including Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Alice Childress, Earl Hyman, and Harry Belafonte, among others. The Negro Playwrights Unit, formed in Harlem in 1940, included writer Richard Wright, but after WWII, the Harlem theatre movement had all but vanished. The Council on the Harlem Theatre was formed by Miss Childress and other concerned black theatre artists, in an effort to restore the legacy they had already been a part of. They produced an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ folk hero, Jesse B. Simple at the Harlem Baron in 1950, also the site of a scattering of independently produced plays in the early 50s with casts that included Eli Wallach, Helen Martin and Clarice Taylor. The Elks Community Theatre in Harlem was the site of Ossie Davis’ first produced play in 1952, and Miss Childress became the first African American playwright to win an OBIE award for her 1955 play, Trouble In Mind, produced in Greenwhich Village. In 1957, Vinnette Carroll directed unknown actors such as Cicely Tyson, Clarence Williams III, Roscoe Lee Brown at the Harlem YMCA in Dark of The Moon, a play produced by the YMCA Drama Guild in association with the Little Theatre Players, but with several opportunities opening for African American writers and actors in Manhattan’s off-Broadway theatre districts, Harlem lost its reputation as the bed of Black theatre. Theatre. It would take the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s to restore Harlem’s reputation and evoke another renaissance. Besides those theatres already mentioned, Ernie McClintock intertwined street life awareness with acting theory for Harlem youth at his Afro-American Studio Theatre and Vinette Carroll formed the Urban Arts Corps, developing two musicals that would eventually go to Broadway, but by the mid-70s, only a few companies survived and the movement itself became another significant moment belonging to another time in Harlem history. Since the formation of Anita Bush’s theatre at the Lincoln Theatre, many Harlem theatre companies have come and gone, most leaving a well worn trail of significant artistic landmarks along the way, making way for yet another chapter in Harlem theatre.

Originally published in American Theater Magazine 2004
©Carl Hancock Rux all rights reserved

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