Stage & Screen

Harlem in Hyde Park

With a festival and a new play, Court celebrates the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance

Courtesy of Court Theatre

In Blues for an Alabama Sky, the play produced this winter by Court Theatre, worlds collided: the Harlem Renaissance came to Hyde Park. According to Court’s executive director Stephen J. Albert “to explore and extend the African-American canon” is still Court’s long-term project. The theater’s appreciation of African-American art and culture are especially valuable to Court’s audience; he says Court’s audience “gets on its feet” to applaud “stories that speak to [its] own history.” Court sought to meet this demand this winter by producing Blues for an Alabama Sky, a story of the lives of five neighbors in Harlem during the 1920s—and to go beyond just meeting it, they added a two-month-long festival as accompaniment.

Like the festival that preceded it, 2016’s Satchmo Festival, which celebrated Louis Armstrong, The Harlem Renaissance Celebration in Hyde Park was organized after Court Theatre decided to produce Blues. In planning Court’s 2016-17 season, Blues for an Alabama Sky led the charge by simply being “the right play to put on,” Albert says. It was right not only because its subject matter—race, queer life, and a woman’s right to choose—remains relevant, but because it spans history.

“It is not a historical play,” Albert says. “It is a play written in 1995 by a playwright who is imagining that time [the 1920s].” In this way, it encapsulates the spirit of bringing Harlem to Hyde Park: though the play is about African-American history, it represents a thriving artistic present.

Once the play was decided, Albert says, Court broadened its view by asking, “What else can we do with this play? How can it speak to theatergoers around Chicagoland, and to the University [of Chicago] community of which we are a part?” The result was Harlem in Hyde Park: a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance that spanned the months of January and February.

Education was key. As Albert puts it, Court’s mission in planning the festival was primarily “to encourage people to learn more about the period.” To this end, collaboration—with the Beverly Arts Center (BAC), for instance—was quite natural. The BAC, with whom Court collaborated during the Satchmo Festival, provides many workshops and creative education opportunities to patrons of all ages in the neighborhood of Beverly. The BAC’s commitment to Beverly resembles Court’s commitment to its University of Chicago surroundings and its growing commitment to the neighborhoods around it it; it’s no wonder the institutions like working together.

At the intersection of film and literature, the DuSable Museum of African-American History kicked off the festival January 3 by hosting a South Side Projections screening of Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, which told the story of how Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work were alternatively accepted and rejected by the unjust world in which she lived. The film is narrated by the voices of Hurston’s closest associates and devoted historians, who use humorous anecdotes to convey Hurston’s energy and complexity.

In key with the mission of Harlem in Hyde Park, the screening educated viewers about the past, but was connected to the artistic present of young artists on the South Side. Before the screening, a representative from Bronzeville’s King College Prep told the story of the school’s recent decision to produce several of Hurston’s one-act plays. These plays are rarely performed, so King College Prep’s plan was audacious, but they followed through with aplomb. The school was invited to compete in the Illinois High School Theater Festival, and attendees of the Jump at the Sun screening were invited to come see the play in advance of its competition.

At Harlem in Hyde Park’s musical events, Chicago’s young artists shared the stage with historical greats. In collaboration with Young Chicago Authors and the slam poetry organization Louder Than A Bomb, students from South Side schools read original creative work before “Satchmo Saturdays” shows at the Promontory.

Students at the Ancona School in Kenwood had the unique opportunity to attend table reads and technical rehearsals throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky’s production process. The play’s director, Ron OJ Parson, even visited the school before rehearsals began. In cooperation with the festival, Ancona incorporated the Harlem Renaissance in its history and political science courses. Court’s mission is to diversify and widen theater audiences, and an important step in achieving this is the inclusion of young South Siders and students. Blues certainly succeeded in drawing an audience, as evidenced by the extension of the play’s run through February 19.

The energy of Harlem Renaissance-era art, literature, and political thought pervades Blues. The play’s main characters are made human by the play’s brilliant cast; they swagger through the play’s vivid set and soundscape, convincing the audience that they have lived in these rooms for years. Characters refer to the period’s pop culture giants by their first names: “Josephine” is, of course, Josephine Baker, whose letters from Paris fuel the dreams of Guy, a self-proclaimed “notorious homosexual” who sends her costume designs in the hopes she will choose them for her performances. (How does he get her to accept? By being “realistic” and adding an inch to the waistline measurement.) Also, “Langston” is back in town after an absence the play’s characters feel was too long, fearing he’d forgotten his friends in Harlem.

More than just a rich recreation of a time and place, Blues for an Alabama Sky is a profound study of its characters’ varying philosophies. Every character in the play has a dream, but over the course of the play not all of these dreams can be realized. Though the Harlem Renaissance was hopeful, the play says, it was not perfectly happy. The play’s central conflict, between those who strive for a more complete freedom in and beyond Harlem and an outsider nicknamed “Alabama” whose ideas are incompatibly traditional, shows that the renaissance in Harlem, though welcoming, wasn’t always welcomed.

Beverly Arts Center’s contribution to the festival, meanwhile, was found in its gallery, where works by contemporary Chicago artists were on display through February 19. Employing the techniques of mixed media and assemblage, the works juxtaposed legends with slices of African-American life throughout history. One piece by the Chicago collage artist Candace Hunter, “La Jo,” puts representative and abstract portraits of Josephine Baker side by side, visually acknowledging how our understanding of historical icons changes over time as they themselves become subjects of art. The piece is composed of isolated boxes whose contents contrast; one holds a 1981 biography of Baker, and another contains a poem in white script, written ostensibly in Baker’s own voice. The parts of “La Jo” suggest a flattening of time. As Hunter reconsiders Baker now, she must consider past relics together with present attitudes; by assuming a contemporary voice, Baker’s image is warped as it is reconstituted. Elsewhere in the gallery, the portraiture of Patricia Stewart—in which all subjects pose identically, looking into the background from the edge of the frame—literally puts the artist in the place of her subject, the Harlem Renaissance artist Elizabeth Catlett. The BAC’s gallery was emblematic of Harlem in Hyde Park’s dual role: to serve as a portal to the past, and to showcase exemplary work by artists working now in Chicago, no matter their age.

Is there another festival in the works to continue bridging these gaps between the established and contemporary African-American canon? Albert can’t say yet, since the schedule for the 2017-18 season has not been finalized. But since Court will still desire to tell necessary and relevant stories, another celebration may soon be in the offing.

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