When the Jazz Age was born at the height of Prohibition, Harlem hopped. Between 1912 and 1934, during the Harlem Renaissance, African American poets wrote in syncopation about struggles in the South. Dancers writhed on soot-stained sidewalks to celebrate freedom. And singers sang the blues in smoke-filled ballrooms.
"Harlem was a promise of a better life, of a place where a man didn't have to know his place simply because he was black," Walter Dean Myers wrote in his poem "Harlem." The celebrated piece chronicled life on Seventh Avenue, where black bohemians migrated from the South in a quest to integrate traditional African music, dance, literature, and art into mainstream American culture.
This weekend at the Ohio Theatre, the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration on Tour re-creates Harlem, via an adaptation by Bill Grimmette based on Myers's poem. Accompanied by a four-piece jazz band, storyteller Jefferson Russell will paint a portrait of a neighborhood buzzing with musicians, poets, dancers, and artists.
"They had their spirits," says Kimberli Boyd, Kennedy Center's artist educator. "They had their memories. Most of all, they hung out fierce."
The Harlem Renaissance "exploded with color and creativity" among artists who planted roots in the once-fashionable neighborhood settled by Dutch Jews in 1658, she says. They congregated on street corners to dance and sing, their music parroting the call-and-response heard in native African music.
And, as the epicenter of New York nightlife shifted uptown to Harlem, white Americans made the jaunt to the Cotton Club, Apollo Theatre, and Savoy Ballroom to soak in the sounds and culture. With the spotlight shining on them, artists like Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker felt racial barriers starting to crumble.
"They said, 'There's a place where it may not be perfect,'" she says. "But it has opportunities." Which came knocking, loud and clear.