MU
Oak Leaves

February 23, 2018


Theatrical Performance Presents Poets of Harlem Renaissance


Teresa Masteller 


Manchester University’s College of Art and Humanities presented “Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance” as a VIA on Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. in Cordier Auditorium.

This 70-minute chamber-music theatrical performance set in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s focused on the works of African American poet Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes as seen through the eyes of artist Aaron Douglas.

Actor and member of Actor’s Equity Association, Dracyn Blount, shared the stage with the Core Ensemble which consisted of Ju-Young Lee on cello, Mikael Darmanie on piano, and Michael Parola on percussion.

The musicians of the Core Ensemble presented themselves as the musical entertainment at a party held by Douglas, who Blount first portrayed. They interacted minimally with him, aside from the occasional reaction to his words through facial expressions and common gestures, but the musicians almost never spoke themselves. Instead, they stayed focused on the story of the music, which was slow and calm at some times, but harsh and fast at others.

Blount performed five scenes and an epilogue from the voices of Douglas, McKay, Cullen and Hughes. The Core Ensemble played famous works by Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus, Jeffrey Mumford, Jelly Roll Morton and George Walker.

“This piece takes place on an evening in January 1935 following the deaths of Wallace Thurman and Rudolf Fisher,” the program stated. “Aaron Douglass has engaged a chamber music ensemble to perform at a Memorial Dinner Party in their honor.” In the play, Douglas hired the ensemble to provide music for an experience that would show the hope that “our poetry, our art, our music would transcend the boundaries of race and culture.”

Shifting from character to character, Blount made distinctions between each role using different attire, mannerisms, accents and moods. Each character recollected historical moments of the Harlem Renaissance, recited pieces of poetry and paid remembrance to figures of that time period.

McKay, portrayed as irritable and proud, was a character that wished to pay his respects toward Thurman and Fisher in his own way. He mentioned that words are his weapon, and that he is "not angry" as declared angrily in one scene. "Just a warrior for justice,” he said.

Cullen was portrayed as outgoing and quite cheerful, but his hidden anger came out as he turned a poem into a song and dance. "I have never been a Negro poet," he powerfully proclaimed. "I am a poet who is a Negro."

Douglas’ character was respectful and calm. He watched and interacted with the lively Harlem city through his window before reflecting on the memorial party that no one attended.

One of the most notable scenes was Blount as Hughes. He was seen passing time in a Mexican cemetery where he had come to see his father’s grave after settling his estate. After struggling to come to terms with his father’s distance in his life, Hughes started defending his life choices against his father’s expectations and doubt. He spoke to a grave, giving an emotional and passionate speech on doubt and expectation.

“Of Ebony Embers” presented an emotional and entertaining performance while at the same time was exposing the audience to creative individuals who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance.

The Chamber Music Theatre work was produced by the Core Ensemble, written by Akin Babatunde, directed by Rosa Rodriguez and was originally adapted on stage by Saundra McClain.

Additional information on the actor, the Core Ensemble, the music, and the performance can be found at coreensemble.com.