Harlem-grown show challenges cultural deterioration

As a young nation born in a great bang a few hundred years ago, America often grapples with its own identity.

Renaissance Harlem Photo
Performers Jaylene Clark, Hollis Heath and Jeanelle Heatley fight to preserve the heart and soul of Harlem, their much-loved home.

For the American consciousness, this means that historical authenticity is a touchy subject. Many are those who bemoan the ubiquitous strip malls and prefabricated homes, which seem soulless and artificial in comparison to the great buildings of stone and marble produced by other, more ancient civilizations; only they truly breathe, exhaling a heady awareness of time passed and lives lived. Yet, only a fool would deny that America is devoid of history or culture: Its landscape is speckled with history, places that have weathered the passing of years and absorbed the vibrancy of their people.

Harlem is one of these places. Derived from the Dutch colony that preceded it, Harlem – its name alone ringing like music and heavy with meaning – has served as the cradle for much of the culture of this country, especially for the African American community. However, this cultural mainstay is currently under threat, which was precisely the subject of Friday’s play Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale. When it took the stage at Goodrich Hall, the Harlem KW Project addressed the very relevant, recent issue of gentrification in America’s older urban centers. The three performers, Jaylene Clark, Hollis Heath and Jeanelle Heatley, displayed an exciting mixture of theater, poetry and song to outline the complexities of this issue as it exists in Harlem.

The script is almost autobiographical, as the actresses  impersonate three young women, born and raised in Harlem, who despair at their much-loved neighborhood’s cultural fall from grace. As corporate interests and wealthy developers move in, they replace the landmarks of the Harlem Renaissance from the 1920s and ’30s with new buildings that seem out of place. The nightclubs, brownstones and speakeasies are giving way to steel and glass high-rises, condos and Trader Joes, which seem to rob the neighborhood of its ancestral appeal. Yet, they quickly come to the realization that this metamorphosis is not merely a physical one; in fact, they admit that the renovations are quite welcome, and that these changes have often improved the quality of life on their home turf. However, increasingly high rents are driving out families that have lived in Harlem for generations, and the soul of uptown New York is slowly dissipating.

The most powerful part of this piece was probably its strong narrative progression: Certainly, it would have been easy to list the ills of gentrification and deplore the current state of affairs. However, the trio progresses from its initial, over-simplified qualms that the “white folk” are sucking out the neighborhood’s lifeblood to a much more complex and enticing analysis of the situation. Skit after skit, they come to realize that this phenomenon transcends race and is more symptomatic of issues of class and culture. In addition, their show serves as a sort of call to arms: The Harlem community must trade its complacency for action and strive to enrich its much-loved home by bringing its vibrant musical, poetic and intellectual past into the present.

As performers, Heatley, Clark and Heath are an unmitigated delight. First and foremost, they shine as highly talented individuals; their play comes off as bright, bubbly and genuine, yet their poetry is also heartfelt and gripping, just as their voices ring with great strength and harmony. More specifically, it was the seamless integration of these three components that kept the audience excited and interested: They moved from spoken word to song with the same ease with which they shifted the tone from solemn to comedic. Their sketches, which were often original and unexpected, constituted one of the more entertaining segments of the performance. One in particular, in which the trio impersonated buildings along the street gossiping about a swanky, modern newcomer, got a lot of laughs from the audience.

Of course, much of the yearning expressed by Harlem KW Project and the movement it represents stems from a sense of borrowed nostalgia; the youth today cannot possibly remember the times of Prohibition, the days when the streets of Harlem rang with the songs of Fats Waller and the words of Langston Hughes, from where most of the cultural memory comes. Yet, an entirely new renaissance is possible, and Renaissance in the Belly of a Killer Whale is certainly a step in the right direction, towards a Harlem revitalized not only by new streetlights and modern buildings but also by a living, thriving culture.