NOTE: The Harlem Renaissance + New Music This Week
African American art on stage was largely the combination of African history and Southern tradition. While the word “renaissance” is usually used to refer to a forward-looking movement, the Harlem Renaissance both embraced the past and created a future where life could be lived to the full. The philosopher Adam Locke wrote in 1925 that “African-American theater must have the courage to develop its own idiom, create new molds and always remain experimental”. Locke knew that this method of expression was destined to succeed because Africa had a deep cultural history and a natural gift for aesthetics.
Some would see the opposing forces of evaluating the past and altering the future as being in conflict. This conflict would fuel the discussions that seeded the Harlem Renaissance. WEB DuBois (whose co-founding of the NAACP in 1910 is often cited as the start of the Harlem Renaissance), described a “double consciousness” rooted in African-American history. Author David Krasner summarizes DuBois’ theory as “a political, social, and economic ‘alienation’ that led to the suppression of ‘self’ in favor of pretending to function within the mainstream.” This inner conflict fuels most of the literary and especially theatrical works of the time. When the individual is freed from it, there is significant progress in art, music, literature and drama.
The Harlem Renaissance began around 1910, peaked in the Jazz Age, and lasted until World War II. In 1904, the IRT Lenox Avenue subway line was completed. African Americans began to move north of the city toward Harlem. At the start of the Great Diaspora, African Americans from the South and West Indies also settled in Harlem. It was the first time that large communities of African Americans lived side by side. The tight lifestyle led this community of communities cut off from the mainstream to discover their own culture. So, unlike the European culture where they made “art for art’s sake”, the rich cultural histories of all these communities overlapped and art became their main expression.
By 1920, 300,000 African Americans had moved north. The movement’s nascent works like Claude McKay’s “Harlem Shadows” and Jean Toomer’s “Cane” defined the phenomenon. Sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson has unveiled the literary magazine “Opportunity”, giving many writers their first place to be published.
In 1917, pieces like “Granny Maumee” and “The Rider of Dreams” premiered on stage. Suddenly, these performances eschewed all the odious traditions and vaudeville fare, for drama that reflected aspects of everyday life. While plays for African-American audiences would continue to function as “contests”, gathering the story into a small collection of scenes (often with audience participation) that would soon evolve into the “folk play”, audiences clamored a means of self-expression. .
Anita Bush grew up in the theater and after seeing Williams and Walker’s “In Dahomey” she auditioned and joined the cast. In 1915 Bush began forming his own company, the Lafayette Players, to tour the United States. The Lafayette Players played a different play (most of the same ones seen on Broadway) almost every week in Harlem for four years until Bush left to pursue success in film.
In 1924, the Lafayette Players were divided into four groups. The original cast remained in Harlem, while the other three companies toured the Midwest, East Coast, and South.
Ida Anderson spent two years in the Lafayette Players before forming her own repertoire group. At the Harlem YMCA, their theater company The Players’ Guild began experimenting with plays written by African Americans and new actors like the legendary Paul Robeson. Also at the YMCA, another group formed primarily to perform the works of new African-American playwrights like Frank Wilson. Like Robeson, Wilson aspired to become an actor. In 1926, Wilson assembled an all-African-American chorus for the ballet “Skyscrapers” at the Met leading to his own play “Meek Mose” which premiered on Broadway in 1928.
The 135th Street Public Library in Harlem is the birthplace of experimental theater. The Krigwa Players, formed in 1925 by Regina Anderson and W. E. B. DuBois, became the Harlem Experimental Theater in 1929. DuBois had long been critical of early African-American companies playing mostly scripted plays in white. Thus, the HET established a code for their company. “The Harlem Experimental Theater should be (1) a theater about us, (2) a theater by us, (3) a theater for us, and (4) a theater near us.” While continuing to work with established actors and directors, they viewed their theater as a public service and a reflection of Harlem communities. 1929’s “Wade In The Water” expanded on the classic folk song. Later productions raised social and societal issues, often with civic and community leaders who needed to see these plays seated in audiences. The protest was dangerous, but the HET created a place for these opinions and ideas to circulate.
The 1916 social play “Rachel”, written by Angelina Weld Grimke, led to the development of a four-piece “folk drama” by Willis Richardson staged from 1925 to 1929. Richardson’s “Chip Woman” is actually set during the Harlem Renaissance and features a family confronting the history of the past. (Plus, the community as a whole helps the poor—receiving the loudest applause from the audience.) There were plays that celebrated military service (“Aftermath” by Mary Burrill in 1919) and even illustrated the hypocrisy within the church (three by Willis Richardson.) Playwrights like Marita Bonner even drew on philosophy to create abstract expressionist works like 1928’s “The Purple Flower” and “Exit, an Illusion”.
As the 1930s approached and brought with them the Great Depression, Harlem’s artistic community had already established its own lexicon on stage to better communicate the events and their effects on the world at large and that the generation that grew up with this expression artistic would have the potential to introduce Harlem to the world.
Mik Davis is the Record Store Manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.
New music this week
BIG THIEF – Dragon New Warm Mountain I believe in you
After a pair of jaw-dropping albums that made numerous best of lists and earned the band Grammy nominations, Big Thief finally returns with more of their exploratory rock sound. Adrienne Lenker has already been established as one of the first new singer-songwriters. With his band, they manage to keep his songs unique to his writing (the elemental lyrics to “Time Escaping”) while maintaining their own identity via an organic, rustic feel. “Simulation Swarm” rides rubbery basses and river chords to create hypnotic pop that just drifts away. The twenty songs here are remarkably coherent but strangely only partially compare to the parts of “UFOF”. The natural open production makes every track inviting and given Big Thief’s insight, the best songs (the lovely “No Reason”) wrap you around like a warm blanket. .
SPOON – Lucifer on the couch
Austin’s Spoon returns to its tough, Spartan sound on its latest album. With their drums mixed in to crack and push the rock-oriented songs forward (à la “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga”), tracks like “The Hardest Cut” and “Wild” are crafted with grooves that fit together. Unlike the last two albums which were sanded down (a little) to appeal to a wider audience, the songs on “Lucifer” are eminently concerned with immediately igniting and burning until they extinguish the flame.
ORGAN TRIO BY DELVON LAMARR – Cold as Weiss
After forming a band on “I Told You So” last year, Delvon, Jimmy and Dan are back with an even more stripped down ’60s-sounding record that draws inspiration from modern jazz/funk. Lamarr’s B3 remains the center of attention with fantastic solos on changes (“Get Da Steppin'”) or melodic hits (“Pull Your Pants Up”.) However, James really carves out space for elegant chords and funky plucking lower lip bites a la Steve Cropper. Much like the title, drummer Dan Weiss holds it all together with his clock-like control of the beat and his ability to alternate between jazzy and muscular fills.
EDDIE VEDDER- earthling
AMOS LEE- Dreamland
On his first solo album in ten years, Eddie Vedder deploys a real backing band and experiments with a different variety of emotional and driving almost rock. “Brother The Cloud” sounds a bit like Pearl Jam halfway through. The ballad “The Haves” features antique piano, Beatlesque and Vedder changes going both low and high. “Earthling” shows Vedder developing his songs better through production (Springsteen’s verse meets Tom Petty’s chorus on “Long Way”) but still has nothing to do with his day job.
With a string of AAA hits featuring his soulful vocals, Amos Lee returns with an album of his self-examination. “Dreamland” is derived from a series of songs he wrote during the pandemic. Although the songs feel different (the Hiss Golden Messenger-esque “Into The Clearing”), “Dreamland” still has too much in common with other less adventurous releases in its catalog.