October 23, 2019

The Golden Age of Harlem Comes Alive at McCarter

CELEBRATING A CULTURAL CENTENNIAL: Vocalist Michael Mwenso brings his group The Shakes to McCarter Theatre on November 6 with “Harlem 100,” a multi-media performance capturing the sights and sounds of Harlem in the 1920s.

By Anne Levin

Just under a century ago, Harlem was exploding with artistic and intellectual energy. Musicians, dancers, writers, and artists flocked to the upper Manhattan neighborhood during The Great Migration of African Americans from south to north. The Harlem Renaissance stretched through the 1920s, launching such legendary entertainers as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, and Willie “the Lion” Smith.

It is this decade of cultural excitement that Michael Mwenso and The Shakes recreate with Harlem 100, a multi-media show coming to McCarter Theatre on Wednesday, November 6 at 7:30 p.m. Mwenso wrote the show in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

“This was a pivotal time for creative spirits — artists, poets, writers, musicians, dancers — to come together at one location, with this amazing body of work,” Mwenso said during a recent telephone conversation. “It was an explosion of creativity that needs to be known and protected.”

Mostly, Harlem 100 is a musical celebration. “You’ll hear great music from the time, and also learn a lot about the artists,” said Mwenso. “The songs are arranged in a unique way, done just like they played them. But we put our own spin on it.”

There is also dancing, specifically the tap artist Michaela Marino Lerman. “She’s an incredible tap dancer, and was a protege of Gregory Hines,” said Mwenso. “She’ll give that part of Harlem’s history — the relationship between tap and jazz and African Americans. She is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Born in Sierra Leone and raised in London, Mwenso “got the music bug” as a child. “I went to a lot of concerts, and I studied piano and learned trombone,” he said. “Music just took hold of me. Eventually, I put the trombone down and became a singer. I was able then to create a community in London, performing at Ronnie Scott’s [a famous jazz club]. Wynton Marsalis saw what was going on, and he asked me to work with Jazz at Lincoln Center. Then, The Shakes grew out of the community I created there.”

Harlem was, unquestionably, the focus of the cultural explosion of African American artists in the 1920s. Covering just three square miles, it drew nearly 175,000 African Americans during The Great Migration, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. The area attracted African Americans of all backgrounds, from unskilled laborers to an educated middle-class. Anxious to forge a new identity as free people, they shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression.

But the cultural renaissance was not limited to New York City. “It was happening all over,” said Mwenso, “anywhere black people were trying to raise themselves up. Places like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had similar things going on. But Harlem was special, because you had these geniuses like Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.”

Mwenso and other members of The Shakes live in Harlem. “We’re all in a 20-minute radius of one another,” he said. “For us, it really means a lot to live in the place we’re talking about. It makes it personal.”

Mwenso hosts the show, and other members of the cast speak as well. The evening features the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters, accompanied by a nine-piece band. Three dancers round out the cast.

“It’s a celebration of knowledge and achievement,” said Mwenso. “We hope you leave knowing a bit more and feeling uplifted.”