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Harlem Renaissance inspires playwright


"Harlem is vicious modernism," writes poet Amiri Baraka. "Can you stand such beauty, so violent and transforming?"

Northern Manhattan was a hub of transformation in the early 20th century as thousands of African-Americans left the rural south and migrated to northern cities where the industrial economy, jogged by the Great War, had heated up.

The black intelligentsia was on the move as well, and as America entered the 1920s, many of its most eloquent and influential voices were emanating from African-Americans.

The outpouring of arts and letters that resulted became known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that continues to inspire James Ballard of Arnold, whose original play, The Harlem Renaissance, will be performed at 4 p.m. Sunday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

"What a fascinating period in our history this was," says Ballard, a psychologist- and musician-turned-playwright. "I've always been drawn to it and got the idea of writing a piece about it back in 2002. I call it 'edutainment' - a play that's fun but can shed light on some issues."

"It's actually a fantasy piece," says Vivian Gist Spencer of Annapolis, who will portray novelist Zora Neale Hurston in Sunday's performance. "Jim wondered what it would have been like if these famous writers and artists had gotten together after the fact and looked back on the period and their relationships with each other."

Those encounters, which take place in an onstage nightclub, will be punctuated by works of classic jazz, such as "Take the A Train," "Harlem Nocturne," "Satin Doll" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing" performed live by Ballard, members of his cast and a six-piece band.

Gist Spencer, an English professor, says she is thrilled to be portraying one of her literary heroes.

"Zora Neale Hurston is one of my absolute favorites," she says. "A woman way ahead of her time. She was fiery, rebellious, incredibly talented, a student of anthropology, a collector of African-American folklore and a voodoo priestess all rolled into one. I'll be trying my best to bring these attributes out on the stage."

Other prominent players will be the actress's husband, Tony Spencer, as W.E.B. DuBois, intellectual godfather of the Afrocentrism at the heart of the Renaissance, and Georgette Gregory playing Jessie Fauset, editor of the NAACP journal, The Crisis.

Poet Langston Hughes, the Iowa-born writer; critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten; and Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron of the arts who backed both Hurston and Hughes, are other characters the audience will meet in Ballard's high-energy play.

"I tried to go beyond the familiar names and titles," Ballard says. "It's character development interspersed with music that I was really after."

His Harlem Renaissance should be a stirring tribute to this remarkable time when 125th Street was the epicenter of an artistic explosion that would change the rhythm and tone of American culture forever.

James Ballard's The Harlem Renaissance will be performed at 4 p.m. Sunday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and students, and $15 for children. Proceeds from the show will benefit Sojourner-Douglass College. For information, call 410-897-1244.

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