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Where to see dance, music and theatre performances in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood
For the past decade or so, the media has raved about the new Harlem Renaissance. But longtime locals know the neighborhood never stopped being a cultural hot spot, even during the lean years. Of the five Harlem theatres we're highlighting today, three have been around for 40 or more years, and all present performances that reflect and celebrate the historically black community while appealing to diverse audiences. Here's a sampling of what Harlem's vibrant performing arts scene has to offer.
1. National Black Theatre
2031 Fifth Avenue at 125th Street
Founded in 1968 by the late actor-dancer Barbara Ann Teer and now run by her daughter Sade Lythcott, NBT has been located in the heart of Harlem for more than a half century. After operating out of a modest space for the first two-plus decades, NBT expanded into its current 64,000-square-foot complex in 1982 featuring two theatres, classrooms and an art gallery. From the outset, its mission has been to create a new African-American canon outside of the white mainstream, and to uplift the black community through the performing arts. During its five-decade history, NBT has produced hundreds of shows and continues to develop new pieces by young writers of color, particularly women. Ain't Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations book writer Dominique Morisseau and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play playwright Jocelyn Bioh both presented early works at NBT.
What's next? NBT just wrapped up its 50th anniversary season, and is currently planning its next. In the meantime, its residency programs for playwrights, directors and producers continue to forge the next generation of black theatre-makers. Alums include playwright-performers Mfoniso Udofia, Nambi E. Kelley and Ngozi Anyanwu.
2. Apollo Theater
253 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass Boulevards
Irony alert: The Apollo was a whites-only venue called Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater for the first 20 years of its existence. But in 1934 it changed its name and focus, and it's been black America's de facto temple of music and comedy ever since. The list of luminaries who have graced its stage is jaw-dropping: Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey launched their careers at the Apollo after winning its famed Amateur Night competition; and Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder are a smattering of the stars who have headlined there. Although it's not usually thought of as a theatre venue, the first play to run at the Apollo was The Detective Story with Sidney Poitier back in the '50s, and it's hosted a number of shows over the decades, notably George C. Wolfe's musical Harlem Song, John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons and Classical Theatre of Harlem's The First Noel. Ballet Hispánico also frequently appears at the Apollo.
What's next? October brings a return engagement of Between the World and Me, a musical based on Ta-Nehisi Coates' award-winning book of the same name, and there are weekly Amateur Night contests. But the Apollo's biggest news is that it's taking over the Victoria Theater located a few doors down on 125th. The long-closed venue is currently undergoing a massive redevelopment, and is projected to open in fall 2020 with two performance spaces: one with 99 seats, the other with 199.
3. Classical Theatre of Harlem
Since 1999, CTH has infused Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks, and 20th-century masters such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet with an African-American flavor. Originally based out of the Harlem School of the Arts, the company almost folded when its original founders departed. But producing artistic director Ty Jones -- a veteran CTH actor who won an Obie for his turn in the troupe's production of The Blacks: A Clown Show Harlem -- rescued the company from the brink and expanded its scope, developing new work with contemporary playwrights of color, and adding new traditions such as free summer theatre in Marcus Garvey Park and an annual holiday show. CTH doesn't have a permanent home in Harlem, but its performances almost always take place in the neighborhood. Casting is gender and color-blind, and politics are always present, like its post-apocalyptic Afropunk Antigone, which referenced the Black Lives Matter movement.
What's next? This December at City College of New York's Aaron Davis Hall, CTH is remounting its holiday show A Christmas Carol in Harlem, which premiered last year. A contemporary take on Charles Dickens' classic, this Carol is infused with gospel and R&B songs, and examines the ramifications of gentrification.
4. Harlem Repertory Theatre
The Tato Laviera Theatre and the Experimental Black Box Theatre in the Harlem Prep Charter School, 240 East 123rd Street at Second Avenue in East Harlem
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Sweet Charity and Pippin.
Former Broadway performer and City College of New York professor Keith Lee Grant founded HRT in 2004 at Aaron Davis Hall to bring affordable professional theatre to the neighborhood. Although it bounced around for the first decade, the troupe found a permanent home at the Tato Laviera Theatre in East Harlem in 2013, with Grant taking out a loan from his retirement account to completely renovate the venue. The multicultural company takes the term repertory seriously, running multiple shows at once on its two stages, often over many years. While Grant tends to favor well-known crowd-pleasers, he also revives more obscure shows like Jamaica, an all-black musical that hadn't been seen in New York since it closed on Broadway 60 years ago.
What's next? A new production of Pippin just joined HRT's rotating lineup, which currently includes Jamaica, A Raisin in the Sun, Sweet Charity and a one-hour staging of The Wizard of Oz.
5. Harlem Stage
150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street
Established in 1979 as part of the City College of New York, this nonprofit presented performances at Aaron Davis Hall for its first three decades before relocating to the nearby Gatehouse in 2006 and changing its name to Harlem Stage. While the venue hosts lots of concerts, it's also become an incubator for new work by artists of color, commissioning pieces by the likes of performer-playwright Roger Guenveur Smith, choreographer Bill T. Jones and the late poet-performer Sekou Sundiata. Harlem Stage also partners with local theatre companies, presenting multiple shows by Repertorio Español, and coproducing Antigone in Ferguson with Theater of War Productions last year.
What's next? This fall Harlem Stage is celebrating the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance with Nsangou Njikam's live radio play The Renaissance EP, and Daniel Carlton's Check Your Invite! A Renaissance Rent Party Remix, an immersive interdisciplinary event recreating the uptown "rent parties" of yesteryear.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Kwanzaa Celebration: Regeneration Night at the Apollo Theater. Photo courtesy of Ed Marshall.
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