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Theatre in Review: She's Got Harlem on Her Mind (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Raven Jeannette. Photo: Kat duPont Vecchio.

The latest attraction at Metropolitan Playhouse -- aka, the theatre where they really dig them up -- is a trio of one-acts by Eulalie Spence, who, until now, has probably been best-known as a footnote in the life of another theatrical figure. During her many years as an educator, she mentored an unruly, troubled student name Joseph Papirofsky, who later shortened his name and did a few little things like starting Shakespeare in the Park and producing A Chorus Line. To the end of his life, Papp noted that Spence's influence steered him toward maturity and a career in the theatre.

Interestingly, Papp only discovered many years later that his beloved teacher had her own theatrical career, penning numerous plays that provoked discussion and won awards. (One of them, The Whipping, was even bought by Paramount Pictures, which eliminated such narrative unpleasantries as the Ku Klux Klan, retooling it into a romantic comedy for Ida Lupino. We'll draw a veil over that.) Spence was both admired and controversial; her determination to present Harlem life as she saw it, unvarnished and stripped of uplift-the-race speechmaking, got her into an imbroglio with none other than W.E.B. DuBois, who appropriated money she had rightfully won in a playwriting competition. This may be one reason her plays are filled with strong women and weak and/or designing males.

The three pieces that make up She's Got Harlem on Her Mind are brief sketches, but they show a lively talent with a fine ear for the vernacular of the day. (Certain high-minded souls weren't happy about her use of Black dialect, but Spence called it as she saw it, and her work was admired by no less a figure than Alain Locke, the dean of the Harlem Renaissance.) This is a golden opportunity to experience the little-seen work of an American original, and anyone interested in the history of Black culture and/or theatre history won't want to miss it. As a bonus, Timothy Johnson's production is filled with fresh faces, all of whom are worth knowing about.

The evening gets off on an awkward note with "The Starter," a wisp of a romance staged around a park bench. It's a decidedly unsentimental affair -- a marital proposal that quickly bogs down into a discussion of financial assets -- and, at the performance I attended, it moved a tad slowly, with a certain amount of dead air. Then again, there's something endearing about the way SJ Hannah nervously pats his face with a handkerchief before popping the question to a skeptical Déja Denise Green, and their negotiations -- don't even think of going to Woolworth's for a ring, she warns him -- have their charms. As I was at the second preview, it may be playing rather more tightly by now.

The second piece "Hot Stuff," is much livelier, the title alluding to various unsavory activities conducted by the protagonist, Fanny, out of her apartment. Among other things, she operates a lucrative numbers operation; also, her husband, Walter, a shipping clerk in a garment company, helps himself to items ranging from stockings to dresses, which Fanny resells. With elements including a disputed jackpot, a mink stole of unknown provenance, and a Jewish fence who'd like a little companionship for the evening hours, "Hot Stuff" plays like a pre-Code Hollywood melodrama. Raven Jeannette presides over these criminal proceedings with elan, Green returns as a kind of angel of vengeance, and Eric Berger is both appealing and a little reptilian as that fur-bearing seducer. Watch out for Dontonio Demarco, whose surprise appearance cues a little offstage assault and battery.

The final piece, "The Hunch" also centers around a disputed jackpot. Jazmyn D. Boone, as an émigré from Raleigh, is set to marry Terrell Wheeler, who runs a numbers game. Awkwardly, the day's big winner is Demarco, who carries a torch for Boone; even more awkwardly, Boone has actually laid the bet for her unrequited swain; surely, she deserves a piece of the action? Before the play is over, an inconvenient wife will be produced, a gun will be brandished, and romantic arrangements will be subjected to intensive revision. Spence certainly knew how to keep a plot boiling; even more engaging is her coolly unjudgmental eye for her characters' behavior, a fair amount of which is illegal. All three leads deliver, especially Boone, whose character has to make some fast decisions about her future.

Aiding the production is Vincent Gunn's lovely watercolor view of the Harlem skyline from a hill covered with greenery. Leslie Gray's lighting gives each play a distinct atmosphere. The costumes, by Jevyn Nelms, seem to lean toward a slightly later silhouette than the 1920s, but at least they are consistent. Among the grace notes in Johnson's staging are the musical sequences, performed a cappella, between the plays.

Whatever her detractors felt, Spence had something to say, and this triple bill is an invaluable window on another era. Spence may have had an influence on subsequent generations: For example, She's Got Harlem on Her Mind seems to anticipate Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, which looks at the neighborhood as it enters its Depression-era decline. In any case, Spence's body of work needs to be retrieved for both readers and adventurous theatre companies. Cheers to the Metropolitan Playhouse for shedding a light on a playwright we should all know more about. --David Barbour

(21 February 2023)

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