A collection of plays from the Harlem Renaissance offers a Black C.A.S.T. director – and his team – the chance to explore both nostalgia for an era and the issues of today.
By Samantha Neville '19
The Black Community and Student Theater Group was originally going to produce The Mountaintop, playwright Katori Hall’s fictionalized telling of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final day. The group wasn’t able to get rights so director Darius Johnson ’18 began searching for a play with themes similar to those of The Mountaintop. He found Songs of the Harlem River, a collection of five one-act plays from the Harlem Renaissance. The show was first compiled, directed and choreographed by Sheila Xoregos for the NYC Dream Up Festival in 2015. Black C.A.S.T. will present the collection Oct. 1-8 at the Loeb X.
“What we want people to see is that this art is really rich, even though it may be stuff that people never heard of, and it has a lot of rich malleability, as far as what it can mean for different people,” Johnson said.
The play offered two challenges: presenting five plays on the same program and directing each actor in several characters. Johnson said that the actors adjusted to switching comfortably between narratives and characters very rapidly.
The set, however, is the same throughout the play. Everything takes place in a living room except for the last scene, which is set in an imaginative “outdoors.”
Additionally, Johnson and set designer Madison Johnson have taken some scenes and poetry out of the play and added some of their own writing. One explicit change was to update the language to make it more relatable for a contemporary audience, particularly an audience of students. In the revisions, the collaborators included queer black characters. Madison Johnson '19, who takes they/their/theirs pronouns, felt that the queer black community had been overlooked in the script and wanted to change that.
“A lot of our adaptations include queer narratives but without problematizing them,” Darius Johnson said. “It’s not like that’s the conflict in the show. It’s just that these are queer black people during the Harlem Renaissance who are having these conflicts.”
Johnson wants the audience to feel nostalgia for 1930s Harlem, as well as understand the elements of these plays that are still relevant today. “The characters’ needs, the characters’ desires, the characters’ insecurities are all insecurities, needs, desires that we as people in the black community feel today,” he said.
The variety of ways in which racism and oppression are manifested is also in Johnson’s vision because, often, there are nuances that can be missed by mainstream audiences.
“I think that, especially in the theater community, I’ve just found a lack of these sorts of projects, where they really take on and they really tackle issues like this in a respectable way and an appropriate way,” Johnson said. “Putting on a show like this with a black crew and a black cast, a black director and assistant director, that really means something.”
For information about the schedule and tickets for Songs of the Harlem River, click here.