History books present a sanitized version of The Harlem Renaissance, the intellectual explosion of artistic minds that converged in upper Manhattan in the 1920s and ’30s. “For The Love of Harlem” explores the human element of this brilliant, imperfect cadre of artists and writers. The result is a dramatic musical that is at best educationally entertaining, and at worst didactically preachy.
You’ve probably heard of poet Langston Hughes, novelist Zora Neale Hurston and blues singers Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. You might not know playwright and poet Countee Cullen, patron of the arts A’leila Walker, painter and graphic artist Aaron Douglas and raconteur Richard Bruce Nugent.
And what about Wallace Thurman? Founder of the artistic journal “Outlet” in Los Angeles, he relocated to Harlem and became managing editor of “The Messenger,” a journal that published Harlem’s radical socialists. In 1926 he joined Hurston, Hughes, Douglas and Nugent to create “ Fire!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists.” Many critics cite this publication as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance.
These eclectic thinkers were part of a salon that drank heavily, partied merrily and facilitated each others’ gifts and talents. They also fought like roosters, had torrid sexual encounters and largely supported each other without judgment. The first half of the play – Charlottean Jermaine Nakia Lee wrote the book and lyrics – celebrates the group dynamic of these great talents. The second act dissects individual relationships. The first act is more successful.
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The ensemble numbers are lively and engaging. The era’s mood is nicely evoked by tap dancer Jonathan Strayhorn. Dressed in knickers and a newsboy cap, the 12-year-old performs periodically. Likewise, the live band, A Sign of the Times, led by co-composer Tyrone Jefferson, is an important background character. The music is a combination of original songs and covers, including the classic “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins.
Shar Marlin, who plays Bessie Smith, has a full-throated, standout voice. Nicole Danielle Watts also has knockout vocals as Alberta Hunter. Tony D. Massey is engaging as Nugent, who flaunts his sexuality without shame. LeShea Stukes makes the rafters shake with her exaggerated affectations and garish personality as Walker. As Hughes, Brandon J. Wiley is a convincing tortured poet.
Most interesting is the comprehensive challenge this group embraced. They broke rules, and they struggled with identity. They grappled with whether it was more important to represent their people, or fight for a new frontier of freedom. They wrote about stereotypes and homosexuality and self actualization. The work they published in “Fire” was criticized and debated. They alienated other black intellectuals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, who found them vulgar.
The second half of the play struggles to show rather than tell. The personal stories of several of the players are explored in detail. The timing could be tightened, and the set changes could be more graceful. The dancers in the last act are a distraction rather than an enhancement.
On Q Performing Arts’ mission is to educate and produce “classic, contemporary, and original performance works that reflect the Black Experience.” “For The Love of Harlem” definitively achieves this goal.