Every show has an audience. The question is does the environment make the artist, or vice versa? It is critical that my neighbors in Harlem make an effort to join this conversation, and this play is a firecracker to ignite the process.
When I attended Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale last Sunday, I was prepared to sit, rather removed from the rest of the audience, and write a straightforward review. I was not able to detach myself from this play. The intimate inner chamber of the National Black Theatre, steeped in African heritage and cultural paintings and masks, brought to life this deeply personal and often brilliant performance.
Janelle Heatley, Hollis Heath, and Jaylene Clark are all triple threat, beautiful young women, who source their childhood nostalgia on the stoops of brownstones in the Mount Morris Park area. Hand games, playground rhymes, and the new “it” dance are called out between them as they skip merrily down nostalgia lane. “Get Light, get light,” they sing, and pause to reflect on the irony of the words.”Harlem is getting light,” they declare, drawing a comparison to the black/white ratio of a whale’s underbelly.
The Harlem that these young girls dreamed in is no longer. Did it ever exist? Was there ever a “golden era,” or is that confined to the eye of the beholder? It sure sounds sweet when these girls sing it, resonating and harmonizing deeply. Clearly, these three try on the rose colored glasses they had worn as girls and stashed away.
Within this frame, the explanation that the characters offer for the changes in Harlem is a mixed bag. Memorable characters appear, like the grandmother who recounts the history of Harlem from her aged vantage point. A relentless long time resident on the Uptown 2 train that can’t believe how many white people are still on the train at 59th Street.
The oral tradition of 133rd street with its lilting jazz is nearly perceptible in the otherwise sparse sound design. All other instrumentation was created by their voices, taps, and stomps. They reference a current underground spot, Bill’s Place, which preserves some of that original mystique. Longing for a time, which no one can remember when “it wasn’t about skin.”
Heatley’s poetic dedication to Harlem is nothing short of transcendent. She swoons with each word as she demands the integrity of Hername, “Haaarlem.” The buildings themselves speak. When they do, their views are limited by their own commitment to one location; one way of life. The naïve and pretty new building on the corner doesn’t see what the big deal is. The older buildings know, Harlem is a holy land.
The play is a love letter to the neighborhood. As is the case with all young love, blindness and romantic ideals dominate. This group has the potential to develop this piece with a larger, more mixed group of artists who could furnish the play with the design and polish it needs. Strong directorial perspective and edits could open it up to a wider audience, and push the thinking forward on the ideas it presents. At the center of this play should be a question, not an answer.
Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale Directed by Stephanie Berry, Written, produced, and performed by Jaylene Clark, Janelle Heatley, Hollis Heath, and Chyann Sapp. This production is closed, but you should follow @HarlemKWproject or visit harlemkwproject.com for what’s next from this talented crew.