Unheard, unseen voices of this pivotal moment in American history will be brought to life through half-hour radio dramas written by playwrights of color. The podcast will be available starting February 7th on Playbill and exclusively from the Broadway Podcast Network wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Find it now at BPN.FM/Icons
The Classical Theatre of Harlem is located at the epicenter of the only place in North America famous for creating renaissances. The Harlem Renaissance shaped our nation’s music, dance, literature, fashion, theatre, and political discourse. For ICONS, they commissioned writers to create monologues that highlight the largely unsung voices of fascinating figures, especially women, who were central to that movement. ICONS was curated by CTH’s Director of Literary Programs & Dramaturg Shawn René Graham and Mellon Foundation Playwright-in-Residence Betty Shamieh.
“The Harlem Renaissance was one of the most extraordinary and prolific periods in U.S. history. Having these writers, who are living in the midst of a new Black art renaissance in theatre, film and television, revisit these less well-known figures is a testament to the contributions Black artists have made and how they have shaped our culture in the past, present, and future,” remarks Graham. “The writers are all artistic descendants of these ICONS. It was a fabulous experience to work with them and support their exploration.”
“It has been wonderful to witness these writers pour their passion into giving voice to the incredible artists, activists, and intellectuals who shaped the Harlem Renaissance,” adds Shamieh. “These imaginative stories brought to life in ICONS illuminate their impact on our culture and our world.”
1. February 7- ARCHIBALD MOTLEY
Written by Marcus Scott
Performed by Reynaldo Piniella
1978. Harlem Renaissance, 1920s; Années folles, Jazz Age Paris, 1920s; Chicago Black Renaissance, 1930s & 1940s; Archibald floats between time and space, past and present.
Archibald Motley was a bold and highly original modernist and one of the great visual chroniclers of twentieth-century American life. He first came to prominence in the 1920s during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance.
2. February 9 – MAY MILLER
Written by Chima Chikazunga
Performed by Maechi Aharanwa
In the afterlife, May Miller reflects on her life as a Black woman and recalls a highlight of her career during the Harlem Renaissance – knowing W.E.B. Dubois. She speaks about her Black life and the tragedies of ‘fallen soldiers’ that transpired, and haunts us with the tragedies of ‘fallen soldiers’ that persist.
The daughter of a Howard University sociologist, Miller grew up in an intellectual household in which W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were frequent guests. As a prolific writer, Miller sought to portray black people with a level of respect and dignity that had been absent in drama. Her plays included historical dramas about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and in 1977, Miller’s journey led her to the steps of the White House with her poetry being read at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.
3. February 14 – ANGELINA WELD GRIMKÉ
Written by Andrea Ambam
Performed by Tanya Everett
After isolating herself from the world and her pen, Angelina Weld Grimké has nothing to do but (over)think. In chosen solitude that is finally catching up with her, Angelina is haunted both by her literal reflection in the mirror as well as her reflections on family, writing, the status of Black liberation, and …her damn skin.
Angelina Weld Grimké was an American journalist, teacher, playwright, and poet who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. Her groundbreaking work, Rachel, was published in 1920, and has been recognized as one of the first examples of literature during the Renaissance to explore the historical roots of African Americans.
4. February 16 – GLADYS BENTLEY
Written by Kaaron Briscoe
Performed by Cristina Pitter
It’s the morning that Gladys Bentley will introduce her new self to the world, but can she get her past to leave before it exposes her?
Gladys Alberta Bentley was an American blues singer, pianist, and entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance. Her career skyrocketed when she appeared at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in New York in the 1920s, as a black, lesbian, cross-dressing performer. Said Langston Hughes of Ms. Bentley, “she was an amazing exhibition of musical energy – a large, dark, masculine lady, whose feet pounded the floor while her fingers pounded the keyboard – a perfect piece of African sculpture, animated by her own rhythm.”
5. February 21 – JACOB LAWRENCE
Written by Michael Bradford
Performed by Andy Lucien
After much success as a working artist, Jacob Lawrence is admitted to a mental hospital for depression where he discusses the trials and tribulations of his life and the injustices he witnessed in the world of visual arts.
Jacob Armstead Lawrence was an American painter known for his portrayal of African-American historical subjects and contemporary life. Lawrence referred to his style as “dynamic cubism”, although by his own account the primary influence was not so much French art as the shapes and colors of Harlem.
6. February 23 – NINA MAE MCKINNEY
Written by Onyekachi Iwu
Performed by Kara Young
During a March thunderstorm in 1949, old Hollywood actress Nina Mae McKinney visits her former manager, Jimmy Monroe, in his rundown Harlem apartment. During her visit, McKinney descends into her own storm of joy, desire and deep regret.
Nina Mae McKinney was an American actress who worked internationally during the 1930s and in the postwar period in theatre, film and television, after getting her start on Broadway and in Hollywood. Known to many as the Black Garbo, Fayard Nicholas of the dynamic dance duo, the Nicholas Brothers said, “She could act, sing, dance and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.”
7. February 28 – MATTIE MAE
Written by Cassandra Medley
Performed by Pernell Walker
Newly arrived in Harlem in the spring of 1920, Mattie Mae is one of the millions of African Americans who formed the Great Migration fleeing southern racial violence and escaping to the north. Mattie’s new black female employer introduces Mattie to a world of insights and opportunities she could never have possibly dreamt of, and she is on her way to becoming a bold new woman of the world.
Mattie Mae is an amalgam of the experiences of so many women from the South who made the trek to Harlem. Mattie Mae has recently moved to Harlem from South Carolina and works as a maid. When she takes a job at the home of Toot, a nightclub performer, she enters a world she never could have imagined.
The Podcast is available on the BPN APP, Apple/iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart, TuneIn, Deezer, Player.FM, Pocket Cast, Podcast Addict and everywhere else you listen to podcasts.
The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) provides theatrical productions and theatre-based educational and literary programs at little or no cost to underserved communities in Harlem and beyond. Since its founding in 1999, CTH has prioritized opportunity and access in the theatrical arts: onstage, backstage, in its administration, board, and audience. By leading with diversity, equity and inclusion as its core values, CTH attracts one of the most racially, generationally and socio-economically diverse theatre audiences in New York City.
CTH engages with Harlem residents, businesses, schools, and community-based organizations, to directly benefit 18,000 people each year. In fact, CTH is the only professional theatre company above 96th Street dedicated to the classical canon, revivals, new works and musicals.
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