TNC's 'SONGS OF THE HARLEM RIVER' Showcases Black Women Writers This Month

TNC's 'SONGS OF THE HARLEM RIVER' Showcases Black Women Writers This Month

While the nation transitions from Black History Month to Women's History Month, Theater for the New City is presenting an evening of one-act plays from the Harlem Renaissance, including four by women and a fifth focusing on women's right to vote.

"SONGS OF THE HARLEM RIVER: Five Forgotten One Acts from the Harlem Renaissance," presented by Theater for the New City Executive Director Crystal Field and the Xoregos Performing Co., is running at Theater for the New City's Cino Theater through March 13.

The show (Thurs.-Sat. at 8 pm. and Sun. at 3 p.m.) provides a window into the Harlem Renaissance, largely in the 1920s.

The plays, presented earlier in February as part of the Langston Hughes Festival, are particularly topical as ways of recovering and remembering forgotten parts of African American history.

The show also includes poetry by Langston Hughes and Jessie Fauset, presenting a picture of the Harlem Renaissance as a hotbed for creativity. Tickets are $18 by clicking the Tix. link.

The one-acts include "The Hunch" and "The Starter" by Eulalie Spence (both in 1927), "Blue Eyed Black Boy" by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1930), "Exit, An Illusion" by Marita Bonner (1927) and "The Deacon's Awakening" by Willis Richardson (1920).

"People were alive with their writing," said Shela Xoregos, who directed the show. "Magazines had literary contests open to everyone. That's why so many women started writing. That's one thing that was so interesting. Women submitted plays, stories, poetry. And they would win prizes."

While Zora Neale Hurston has become a prominent contemporary writer, Xoregos believes many memorable black women writers have been forgotten.

"I don't think anyone even knows about African American women writers," she said of earlier work. "It's a subject nobody thinks about or knows about, except very famous people."

Maya Angelou once wrote "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song." "SONGS OF THE HARLEM RIVER" presents a symphony of voices in a night when a cultural Renaissance is brought back to life.

Xoregos said the plays are "about Harlem life by people who lived in Harlem and wrote about it," except for one dealing with a lynching in the South, part of an effort to make lynching illegal, even as it was allowed by law.

"Exit, an Illusion" by Marita Bonner, is what Xoregos calls "a sensational, surreal play, almost unheard of in the 20s by a female American writer."

Eulalie Spence's "The Hunch" and "The Starter" are what Xoregos calls "comedies of Harlem life. "The Hunch" is about the numbers racket, a scoundrel and an honest girl, while "The Starter" tells the story of an elevator supervisor and his girlfriend.

Although few theatergoers today know Spence, she studied playwriting at Columbia University and later taught high school in Brooklyn to students including Joseph Papp, who once called her "the greatest influence in my life."

"She lived to see him found the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park," Xoregos said of this woman whose theatrical legacy extended beyond her own work.

"Blue Eyed Black Boy," set in the South circa 1888, is about a lynching that is about to happen, while "The Deacon's Awakening," the only play in the group by a man, focuses on a very different election eve.

"It's about the fight women had to convince men, their husbands and fathers, that they not only had the right to vote. They wanted to vote and they would vote," Xoregos said. "Men didn't want them to vote, even after the 19th Amendment passed."

She said the 1920s were a time full of culture and creativity among African American artists, producing an American Renaissance worth remembering.

"After World War I, it was a time of terrific expansion," she continued. "The Wall Street crash happened in 1929. The Twenties were full of people living the good life, making money, having work, investing in stocks, which crashed and wiped them out. It was a wild era."

Although the cultural explosion is known as the Harlem Renaissance, it spanned a much larger area with ripples from Harlem reaching around the world.

"The epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance was Harlem, but it included many other cities, mostly on the East Coast," she said. "It didn't just take place in Harlem. It was in Boston, Washington, D.C, Chicago, Paris, France."

Josephine Baker was singing in Paris at the same time as Ada "Bricktop" Smith, a singer and dancer was wowing audiences.

"Shuffle Along," the first musical by all black writers with music by Eubie Blake, debuted in 1921 and is now the subject of a new Broadway musical.

We've gone from the 19th Amendment to female legislators and presidential candidates, although Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 long before American women had the right to vote. But some problems persist.

"You hear the same argument today, that women don't get as much salary as men. It's still very unequal," Xoregos added. "It's very funny, because we're so used to being able to vote. It's so bizarre to see this comedy written in 1920, where they were arguing they had the right to vote and they were going to vote."

While applause is one way of measuring success, audiences are doing something else that is even more resounding proof of the show's success.

"A lot of people have come more than one time," Xoregos said. "They come back to see it a second time or a third time. That's extraordinary."

SONGS OF THE HARLEM RIVER, Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., New York, NY. Through March 13, Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. Tix. $18 by clicking the Tix. link, going to www.theaterforthenewcity.net or by calling the theater at 212-254-1109.

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