Harlem on My Mind
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2010
I love to see the presentations cooked up by Shela Xoregos and her collaborators in Xoregos Performing Company. These relaxed evenings or afternoons of short plays, songs, and poetry feel more like salons than stodgy stage shows, although their consummate professionalism belies their informality. Xoregos finds spaces in every corner of our city to mount these hour-long programs—the performance I saw of Harlem on My Mind was at the women's residence known as The Webster, while other performances are being offered in public libraries and the Brooklyn Children's Museum. They're generally free of charge, which is icing on a delightful and surprisingly nutritious cake!
Harlem on My Mind consists of three short original plays, each inspired (in a different way) by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. Grace Cavalieri's delightful Lena's Quilt tells the tall-ish tale of a runaway orphan and the lonely quiltmaker whom she accidentally befriends; set in rural Virginia, it's a lively and lovely charmer. Grimke's Shadow, by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko, introduces us to two smooth-talking Harlem blades (whose dialogue is almost all '20s-era jive, as compiled by Zora Neale Hurston in her Glossary of Harlem Slang), and also to the journalist/poet Angelina Weld Grimke; the play postulates what might have happened if one of those shallow fellows tried to pick up this eminent and educated lady in a Harlem night spot. In between these two comes Dave DeChristopher's Tell Me Again, in which a group of folks sit on a porch and tell each other some folk tales. This last piece, which is performed by the entire ensemble, is a splendid diversion.
Also in between come selections from the poetry of Langston Hughes, Grimke, Gwendolyn Bennett, and others; and for the finale there are three songs from the Harlem Renaissance era: "Harlem Serenade" by the Gershwins and Gus Kahn, "Black Butterfly" by Duke Ellington, Ben Carruthers, and Irving Mills, and the title song, "Harlem on My Mind." The last-named was a real treat for me: I've heard of this song, written by Irving Berlin for his famed revue As Thousands Cheer for Ethel Waters to perform as a Josephine Baker-esque soubrette/chanteuse, but I've never actually heard it. Performed with verve by Crystal Boyd, it is one of the highlights of this production.
Boyd also portrays Grimke; her castmates are Kariyma Jo Ann Nelson (as the quiltmaker Calico), Tony Mitchell (as the Deputy Marshall in Lena's Quilt), Phillip Burke and Quatis Tarkington as the young men in Grimke's Shadow, and young Allura Leggard as the little girl Lena. All do commendable work under Xoregos's solid but unobtrusive direction.
I heartily recommend Harlem on My Mind. It's educational, it's fun, and it's inspiring to see how Xoregos and Company can make theatre happen in the unlikeliest of places. Catch this while you can; and be on the lookout for the next Xoregos Performing Company production. It will literally be coming to an NYC location near you.