How African-American Classics Are Inspiring a New Generation of Black Writers
By JONATHAN MANDELL
Monday, August 12, 2019  •  
Mon Aug 12, 2019  •  
Playwriting  •   0 comments Share This
"The invitation is for audience members and artists to lean into the unknown, and to experience what black artists are seeing and talking about."

The work of Ntozake Shange fuels six new plays at the annual 48 Hours in…™ Harlem

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In a lovely play called More Love, Less Suicides, a man and a woman engage in a back-and-forth about how they want to love one another. "Love me and I'll cry over your dead body," she says. He agrees to consider it: "I say we should probably meet first." Suddenly the audience realizes their courtship has been exclusively online.

The 15-minute two-hander -- written by Ngozi Anyanwu, whose full-length plays have run Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company and the Vineyard Theatre -- premiered earlier this month at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was part of a program of six shorts presented by the Obie-winning NYC theatre collective Harlem9 under the title 48 Hours in…™ Holy Ground.

48 Hours in…™ is Harlem9's signature series. Launched in 2011 in Harlem, it's become a lauded annual neighborhood event that's recently started to branch out to other locales. While the works vary, the rules for creating 48 Hours in…™ Harlem are always the same. Participating writers, directors and actors have just 48 hours to conceive, rehearse and mount a half dozen plays, each inspired by a specific African-American classic. More Love, Less Suicides used the 1977 Tony-nominated play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by the late Ntozake Shange.

"for colored girls… has a lot of pain, but it also has a lot of joy," says Gabriella Momah, who played the woman in More Love, Less Suicides. "We leaned into the joy."

On Sunday, August 25, Harlem9 brings the series home for its ninth annual 48 Hours in…™ Harlem. The one-day event takes place at the National Dance Institute at 217 West 147th Street, where audiences can see six brand-new plays, all inspired by the oeuvre of poet and playwright Shange, who died last October at the age of 70. This is the first time in the program's history that all the shorts are based on the work of one writer.

There's a good reason for that: "People do not know how much she wrote," says Garlia Cornelia Jones, one of Harlem9's founders who's also serving as the line producer for the upcoming revival of for colored girls… at The Public Theater. "The first thing people associate with her is for colored girls… and they stop there. Her obituary said she wrote 15 plays. But her poems too are full of characters and story." There is even a novel (Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo) among the six works that will be used for inspiration for this year's 48 Hours in…™Harlem, along with the lyrical plays for colored girls…, spell #7, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, Black & White Two-dimensional Planes and boogie woogie landscapes.

The participating playwrights (Karen Chilton, C.A. Johnson, York Walker, Liz Morgan, Charles White, and Aurin Squire) have been asked to read all six titles. On August 23, Harlem9 will randomly pair each dramatist with a director and a few actors, and assign them one of the pieces. Every team will have 48 hours to create a new work of theatre, and all six will be presented to the public for a single performance on August 25.

The connection between the source material and the new shorts does not need to be obvious. "The invitation is for audience members and artists to lean into the unknown, and to experience what black artists are seeing and talking about," explains Jonathan McCrory, another Harlem9 cofounder, who also serves as the director of theatre arts at The National Black Theatre.

"It's an exercise in creativity," adds actress and playwright Sandra A. Daley-Sharif, another Harlem9 producer.

The seeds for 48 Hours in…™ Harlem were planted in 2010 when Daley-Sharif organized a potluck dinner for her fellow black NYC theatre artists -- most of whom she'd never met. "We wanted to see if we could support one another, and create a community," McCrory says. One of the attendees suggested they band together to produce an event and, a year later, Harlem9 (so named because there were originally nine producers) presented its inaugural 48 Hours in…™ Harlem. That first batch of plays included works by Dominique Morisseau, who went on to become a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow and the book writer of Broadway's Ain't Too Proud -- The Life and Times of The Temptations, and Mfoniso Udofia, who's working on a cycle about a Nigerian family. Other 48 Hours in...™ Harlem alum include Marcus Gardley, James Anthony Tyler, Chisa Hutchinson and Donja R. Love, all of whom were subsequently produced by prestigious Off-Broadway theatres.

The new plays produced as part of the series have been published in four anthologies, including a collection generated from 48 Hours in… El Bronx, a Latinx-focused edition presented in collaboration with Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater since 2016. This is the first year Harlem9 has taken its act on the road, producing 48 Hours in…™ events in Winston-Salem and Detroit.

To ensure 48 Hours in…™ engages as many artists as possible, participants can only do it once, unless they're willing to change roles -- i.e. an actor re-ups as a dramatist, etc. Jocelyn Bioh performed in Morisseau's play back in 2011; two years later, she returned as a playwright. (Serendipitously, this fall she'll appear in The Public's for colored girls….)

Of course all artists are encouraged to come back again and again as audience members. According to the producers of Harlem9, many do, making 48 Hours in…™ Harlem feel like a reunion. "We're all interrelated," says Jones. "We're all part of this larger black theatre community."

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Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Harlem9's producing team. Back row: Jonathan McCrory, Garlia Cornelia Jones, Sandra A. Daley-Sharif and Spencer Scott Barros. Bottom row: Bryan E. Glover and Eric Lockley. Photo courtesy of Harlem9.

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