BY RACHEL deARAGON | There could not have been a more fitting way for a playhouse to mark Black History Month than to help us rediscover one of our own New York writers. “She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind,” three one-act plays by Eulalie Spence, directed by Timothy Johnson, which opened in February, seamlessly transports us into the lives of Harlemites who lived a hundred years ago.
Spence was a playwright and well-respected theater professional of the Harlem Renaissance who has not received the critical attention she deserves. Her work reemerges in the talented hands of Johnson’s direction as a voice to be heard in the 21st century. Her prize-winning work was well known among her contemporaries and she was an active member of The Krigwa Players, The Dunbar Players and Columbia University’s Laboratory Players.
Although Spence attained limited commercial success, she was a writer, actor and director at a time when the avenues of success for Black women were extremely narrow. She was criticized because she did not confront “the race problem” on stage, but rather addressed the human experience. Issues of class, race and gender form the framework of her work. Characters emerge from their social circumstances and, embedded in humor, there is sharp social criticism. Her work is finely crafted, speaking eloquently of the joys, pain and aspirations of ordinary Black New Yorkers. She described the role of theater as entertainment. The audience is indeed entertained.
Then, as now, artists often need to support themselves with a proverbial “day job.” With a B.A. from New York University and a master’s from Columbia Teachers College, Spence taught elocution and dramatics at Brooklyn’s Eastern District High School. One of her students was Joseph Papp, who went on to become the founder of Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater. He called Spence “the most influential force in my life.”
“She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind” is performed on an open stage. With stage management by Mary Caitlyn Deffely and assistant Julie Gottfried, the gentle lighting by lighting designer Leslie Gray illuminates a painted skyline seen through the trees. Are we looking south toward Central Park through an open window in summer, in Harlem?
The talented and versatile eight-person cast steps out in period costume, bringing energy and presence into the room with a Charleston-style musical prelude and dance. The audience is immediately engaged, clapping to the rhythms, and watching the animated expressions on the dancers’ faces.
Johnson uses his own compositions as well as period popular melodies thoughout to knit the play together and add emotional continuity to the production. His reenvisioning of the three plays as a complete piece is filled with energy and insight. Like defining brushstrokes, Jevyn Nelms’s costume design and Vincent Gunn’s sets truly recreate the era.
The three plays, “The Starter,” “Hot Stuff” and “The Hunch,” explore the meaning of love and personal loyalty. Life in the big city for people struggling to make ends meet was, and still is, fraught with obstacles. There are those who work hard and can’t seem to get ahead, and those who turn to crime. Tense moments are directed by Katie Bradley, the show’s fight/intimacy director. Spence wrote openly about what would have been considered the less than “ladylike” aspects of urban life with wit and compassion.
We are charmed: “The Starter” invites us to observe T.J. Kelly (SJ Hannah) and Georgia (Deja Denise Green) on a park bench at their after-work rendezvous. Two local matrons, Mrs. Henry (Monique Paige) and Miss Clark ((Jazmyn D. Boone), do not approve. The two young lovers unburden themselves of the woes of work on a hot New York summer day. Their banter, their lives and their aspirations are framed within the context of limited resources, but their affection for one another cannot help but make us smile.
We are surprised: “Hot Stuff” introduces us to the parlor of the “very respectable,” ever-alluring Fanny King (Raven Jeanette) and her less-than-respectable business practices. Her customers do not all go away completely satisfied. Mary Green (Jazmyn D. Boone) may have something up her sleeve. John Cole (Terrell Wheeler) may have been cheated. Jennie Barbour (Deja Denise Green) may blow the whistle. Isadore Goldstein (Eric Berger) has gotten more than he bargained for. And as for Fanny’s husband, Walter King (Dontonio Demarco) — well, we can be surprised.
We are touched: In the rented room of Mrs. Reed’s (Monique Paige) flat, the very young and impressionable Mavis Cunningham (Jazmyn D. Boone), perfectly starry-eyed and new to the big city, packs her suitcase. She is leaving to be married to the older and very streetwise Bert Jackson (Terrell Wheeler). Is there already a Mrs. Jackson (Raven Jennette)? A friend, Steve Collins (Dontonio Demarco) intervenes — for richer or poorer — for better or for worse.
Spence’s vision is one that celebrates the passion in the ordinary with humor and pathos. Metropolitan Playhouse, under the leadership of Alex Roe, holds true to its motto — “Finding America One Play at a Time” — and once again proves itself a vital force in the Off Off Broadway scene in our community. The Playhouse has again uncovered a far-too-often-ignored America in bringing Eulalie Spence’s plays to the stage.
“She’s Got Harlem On Her Mind” runs through March 12 at the Metropolitan Playhouse, at 220 E. Fourth St. For tickets and information call 212-995-8410 or visit the theater’s Web page.