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Musical revives the vibe of Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, also called the New Negro Movement, flourished in Harlem, N.Y., in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a dynamic time characterized by innovations in art, literature, music, poetry, theater and dance.

That dynamism is reflected in "For the Love of Harlem," a musical being presented by OnQ Productions at the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square. Jermaine Nakia Lee wrote the book, lyrics and original songs in this loving tribute showcasing the formative years and intimate interconnections of some of the greatest artists of our time.

We are treated to the back story of the often-fractious but ultimately binding friendship among these people.

Beginning with an exuberant jazz number called "For the Love of Harlem," the stage bursts with life as the main cast is joined by five talented dancers. It's a terrific opener to the show and highlights the vibrancy of Harlem in this fertile creative period.

Gathering to create and carouse in the Harlem brownstone of novelist Wallace Thurman (Tim Bradley) are literary lions Langston Hughes (Justin Moore), Countee Cullen (Marchand DeKarlos), and Zora Neale Hurston (Sherretta Ivey). "Empress of the Blues" Bessie Smith (Sharlata Marlin) is there in all her unapologetic glory, as are blues singer Alberta Hunter (Briana Smith), artist Aaron Douglas (Vincent Robinson) and playwright Richard Bruce Nugent (Tony Massey).

Bradley, as Thurman, is the life of the party and demonstrates his devilish nature in the R&B-inflected "Niggerati in You." (The deliberately ironic term was used by Thurman to describe his group as a slap in the face to Harlem's bourgeoisie.)

Many of the artists Lee features have complicated love lives, and this is explored in several of the songs. Most moving is "What's Wrong?"; a ballad sung passionately by Cullen (DeKarlos) as a lament to his friend Hughes (Moore). Cullen would like Hughes to be open with his sexuality and consider letting down his guard and becoming more than friends.

Lee explores the bisexuality of Bessie Smith (Marlin), who heatedly explains to Hunter (Smith) that her private life is just that in the smoky jazz "T'aint Nobody's Business." Later, Hunter is having her own romantic dilemma with her lover, Lottie Tyler (Ruby Edwards). Smith's and Edwards' voices blend beautifully on the heartbreaking blues ballad "This Worried Song."

Throwing some comic relief into all of this heartbreak is LeShea Stukes, a riot as socialites and arts patron A'Lelia Walker, heiress to the hair-care fortune of her mother, Madame C.J. Walker. Her soiree, in an antique-filled brownstone, is genteel and elegant - but when she favors her artistic guests with a solo, watch their decidedly non-genteel reactions.

"For the Love of Harlem" features an excellent live band, led by trombonist extraordinaire Tyrone Jefferson. Costumes, by Davita Galloway, are perfectly period and add a great deal of color and authenticity to the production.

The dialogue between the songs can get wordy - there's too much dry explication of the movement that doesn't seem conversational. Director Sidney Horton and all of the performers, though, have captured the magnetic draw and the spiritual audacity of Harlem.