It is fortunate that during this time when live concerts and festivals are being cancelled, there are many online events to keep the music going. On Monday, May 18, 2020, Harlem Stage presented “Celebrating Harlem Stage!” It was a virtual performing arts gala and fundraiser, and it was hosted by Tamara Tunie, LaChanze, and Celia Rose Gooding.
Tamara Tunie is a film, stage, and television actress (and director) who has appeared in the movies Wall Street, Flight, and The Devil’s Advocate. She won an Independent Spirit Award as Best Supporting Actress for The Caveman’s Valentine.
LaChanze is a Broadway star with an extensive resume. She starred in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Company, Once On This Island, and she won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her role in The Color Purple.
Celia Rose Gooding (who is LaChanze’s daughter), recently made her debut in the Alanis Morissette Broadway play, Jagged Little Pill. Celia not only followed in her mother’s acting footsteps, but before the pandemic, the two made history as the first mother/daughter team to star in two different Broadway shows at the same time, with LaChanze playing the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.
Hosts LaChanze and Celia Rose Gooding welcomed the viewers to the event, which was a replacement for the live annual gala. Then they introduced Tamara Tunie, who said, “For over 35 years, this uptown gem has been essential to artists of color. Harlem Stage provides artists with critical support, and a platform to create and present their work. Many of the performances are free, or at a very low cost to the community, making art accessible, which is what it should be. So many artists have had the opportunity to realize their vision, bring their work to life, and in many cases, launch their careers because of Harlem Stage. Now, more than ever, we need your support to continue Harlem Stage’s unquantifiable mission of providing artists of color the ability to develop and present their work, and of making the art accessible to thousands of New York City schoolchildren.”
Tamara introduced a video excerpt of the tribute to the late musician, Prince, which was created by jazz bassist Ben Williams, titled Ben Williams: Dearly Beloved, the Music of Prince.
Next, Ms. Tunie said, “Jason Moran is undoubtedly one of the best jazz pianists of our time, and he’s also a member of Harlem Stage’s Artist Circle. Here he is in 2016, in a tribute to the legendary Cecil Taylor.” A video was shown of acclaimed pianist and McArthur Genius Fellowship winner Jason Moran, who at the concert said, “I met Cecil Taylor in Berlin around 2001. I played a concert in a club…well, I forgot the name, but afterwards I thought I had done something special. I looked at the bar and saw Cecil Taylor sitting there, and I went and said hello. He said ‘hmmm.’” Moran continued, “I had the piano like this, the piano on low stick, and he said, ‘Why did you have the piano on low stick?’ I said, ‘Well, they said it would be better for the radio.’ I was young. He said, ‘Your sound is too big to have it on the low stick! Always have it all the way open.’ So, I’m opening it up.” This action received laughter and applause from the audience, then Jason continued with the concert in honor of the late avant-garde pianist, free-jazz proponent, poet, and his fellow McArthur Genius Fellowship recipient.
LaChanze and Celia thanked the sponsors and supporters, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., WarnerMedia, Vision Marketing, Inc., Manhattan Beer Distributors, ABC 7, American Express, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
Joy Reid from MSNBC stated, “What can I say about the Harlem Stage? In the past, I’ve had the honor of emceeing the incredible, gorgeous events at the facility, which is a beautiful facility in Harlem. Not only is this institution a part of the community that’s accessible, makes the arts accessible, allows artists, new and veteran, to perform and participate, and be a part of the community, it’s also just an institution that allows you to appreciate all of the aspects of American culture. It’s so important that we keep that cultural appreciation alive, that we allow artists to be able to grow and thrive…For that to be in Harlem…which is just a bastion of arts from The Harlem Renaissance on…and is such a core part of the black community, of the multi-cultural arts community…it should be allowed to thrive.”
Celia and LaChanze then discussed WaterWorks, Harlem Stage’s signature commissioning program, including Meshell Ndegeocello’s creation Can I Get a Witness: The Gospel of James Baldwin, followed by an excerpt of that show, that premiered to critical acclaim in 2016.
The very first WaterWorks event, Chapel/Chapter, was presented by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. A clip played from that performance, and it was followed by legendary dancer Bill T. Jones speaking live. Jones said, “Once upon a time, not that long ago, when New York was a major city divided into downtown, uptown, east side, west side; when people in certain neighborhoods didn’t feel safe in going to other neighborhoods…or when people, young artist types downtown said they wouldn’t travel above 14th Street, because it gave them nosebleeds…These same people had the notion that whatever happened in midtown was all about commerce, therefore lacking in artistic value. And uptown was like so much of America, a guilty secret, that was not secret. As I said, that was not so long ago, and some of these conditions are still very much with us, now. But there’s one organization, The Gatehouse, that has been there like a beacon, for the New York area, and for the country, and yes, for the world, to say that this historical neighborhood, of which they were a part, is still of relevance to the globe, and that this outpost, The Gatehouse, communicates with creative people around the world, and wants to reach out and embrace any and all comers.”
Swedish rapper and reggae artist Jason “Timbuktu” Diakité sent a live shout-out from Stockholm. He has deep roots in Harlem, and said that both his father and grandmother were from there. He called Harlem Stage “A welcoming harbor, welcoming me and my art to the United States, to New York, and to Harlem…To be given an opportunity and space in Harlem, with Harlem Stage, has meant the world to me. I’m really looking forward to picking up where we left off, you know, once this pandemic has ebbed out and allowed us to go on with performing arts in front of live audiences again.” His WaterWorks program, based on his memoir, A Drop of Midnight, was scheduled for this past March, but due to the pandemic, it has been postponed to October 13, 2020.
Then, a clip played of Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran doing a stunning tribute to Fats Waller in 2011. The show included a vivid re-imagining of Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehaving.” During this concert, Jason wore a huge, startling mask of Fats Waller, channeling the iconic musician and turning the night into a real dance party!
This was followed by singer José James on tape paying tribute in concert to the singer he considered his “musical mother,” Billie Holiday. It was called, Yesterday I had the Blues: Tribute to Billie Holiday. He said, “For me, there can’t be a tribute to Billie Holiday without “Strange Fruit.” That was a defining moment in her career, her life. She laid it all on the line, and she paid a price.” James sang a haunting version the Holiday classic, followed by an equally affecting version of another of her classic songs, “Good Morning Heartache.” He also performed Billie’s iconic “God Bless the Child.” After the concert, in front of the same audience, José sat down with Harlem Stage Executive Director Patricia Cruz, and he recalled that he was first inspired by Billie when he was three years old, which he verified with his mother that it wasn’t a figment of his imagination. Then, José spoke live and said, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am here to share a few words about one of my favorite venues on the planet of Earth, Harlem Stage. Now I can truly say, as an international touring artist who performs in over 40 countries per year, that I’ve never felt more at home, more understood, and more valued as an artist and a contributor to society and culture than I have at Harlem Stage. It’s not only the administration that puts on incredible season after season of the Who’s Who of legends and upcoming artists, but it’s also the audience who is savvy, in the know, and lets you know that they are there for the art…Everybody wants to understand a piece of humanity, to grasp a piece of the future together through culture, through art, through music, through dance, through performance. It’s been a great honor to be a part of that in my own small way. And so tonight, I raise a glass to you, Harlem Stage, for your love of culture, your love of the arts, and your love of me. Thank you.”
Hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy said, “Our arts organizations are a very important part of the lifeblood of New York. As a visual artist, as a filmmaker myself, it’s so important that we think about the arts and do what we can to support them.”
Actor Tate Donovan, whose career includes TV shows Damages and Friends, and the films Memphis Belle and Argo, said, “A couple of years ago, I had the very good fortune of working at Harlem Stage. It was one of the great experiences of my entire life, hands down.” Donovan encouraged people to contribute as much as they can, and he looked forward to the time when the pandemic is a thing of the past.
This past February, Harlem Stage partnered with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to present a concert in honor of Afro-futurism pioneer Sun Ra. The show took place in the Met’s Temple of Dendur. It was a visually stunning and musically exciting event that starred visionary artist and Harlem Stage Guest Artistic Director, Nona Hendryx, and avant-garde jazz trombonist Craig Harris. A clip followed Tunie’s introduction. Hendryx spoke live and said, “I’m very happy to be celebrating a virtual gala with Harlem Stage. It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Pat Cruz, Monique Martin, James King, and all the staff at Harlem Stage. Thank you.” Hendryx continued, mentioning two other major collaborations. “The first one was Parallel Lives: The Lives of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, with an amazing group of talented musicians and singers. The second was a collaboration between Harlem Stage and the Metropolitan Museum starring Craig Harris, and what an amazing night it was, a once-in-a-lifetime event! So, thank you, Harlem Stage. I’ll see you next year, at the gala, in person, 2021, where we’ll have an amazing night again.” A clip of Parallel Lives: The Lives of Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf followed, which was curated by Nona Hendryx, and in which she performed. The clip also showed vintage footage of performances from both Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday.
LaChanze continued the event, saying, “Before I joined the Harlem Stage Board, I was a long-standing member of the Artist Circle. The Harlem Stage Artist Circle is a dynamic community of high-profile artists who are all committed to the values, mission, and work of Harlem Stage.”
Actors and spouses Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy are members of Harlem Stage’s Artist Circle. Claire and Hugh are known for the Showtime series Homeland and the movie Evening, as well as many other projects. Claire said, “It’s really nice to celebrate Harlem Stage, and everything it’s given us over the years.” Hugh continued the conversation, saying, “We’re all wondering when the artistic life of our city will rebound, as we know it will. Not just because these are such tough times for the artistic community, but because ultimately, the response to this thing that we’re all living through at this moment, will be, in part an artistic one. And it’s institutions like Harlem Stage, that support the artists, that will make that response that will help bring us back together.” Claire added, “It’ll help us make sense of all of this. That’s what Harlem Stage has always done. It’s helped us understand ourselves and our city. Because not only does it show us where we’re going, but it shows us where we’ve been. That perspective, that vision is so vital, especially right now.” Hugh said, “One of the last times we were out in the world, before this lockdown, was at the incredible evening of Sun Ra’s music at the Met Museum in the Temple of Dendur, and that seemed to bring together so many of the things we associate with Harlem Stage: incredible music, musicians and artistry, that wonderful partnership, and also that kind of bridge between the past and the future. It sent us out into the night full of hope and full of joy.” Claire concluded, “And we still have that sense of joy a month and a half later, and we need to keep stoking it. So please join us in supporting Harlem Stage. Thank you so much.” Other members of the Artist Circle include Ruben Santiago Hudson, Vijay Iyer, Tania León, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jesse L. Martin, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Gloria Reuben, Jeffrey Wright, and Judith Jamison.
Tamara Tunie returned and said, “For eight years, I was proud to serve as Board President at Harlem Stage. The Harlem Stage Board consists of industry leaders who lend their support, expertise, enthusiasm, and most valuable time to this amazing and necessary organization. Let’s have a few words from our new Board President, the indomitable spirit that is my sister, JoAnn Chase.” JoAnn said, “I love Harlem Stage. I love it with all my heart and soul. I believe in its existence passionately. Long before I had the unique opportunity and privilege to become the Board President of Harlem Stage, I have been an avid patron. I have seen some of the best performances of my lifetime at this really unique and special venue, whether it be an emerging artist, or one of our national treasures, or even an international performer. We know that artists of color struggle so much to get the kind of support they deserve. For 35 years, Harlem Stage has played a…critical and important role in both investing in and believing in artists of color to ensure in fact that they receive every opportunity they can, to realize their full potential.”
Tunie continued, “Here is Harlem Stage’s Executive Director, the formidable Pat Cruz!” Ms. Cruz stated, “Like many of you, I’m in isolation, but I’m not alone. As you can see, I’m surrounded by Homo Sapiens, among the many works of art by my late husband Emilio Cruz, and what I’ve realized during this period is that my blessing has been in the inspiration I’ve found in art. So it is with great honor that I champion the mission of Harlem Stage, and the work that we have done…in a crystallized fashion for the last 14 years with the creation of the Harlem Gatehouse and our commissioning program, WaterWorks. That program has gone on now for 14 years, supporting many of the artists you’ve seen in tonight’s performances. We’ve supported…the development of their work, through workshops, through education programs, and finally into world premieres. Much of that work would not have happened without our support, and we could not have done it without your support.”
Host Tamara Tunie concluded with, “Thank you for joining us this evening, and may you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy. We will see better days again, and we look forward to seeing you in person at Harlem Stage!”
Although the virtual gala was only one hour long, they packed a lot of performance clips and live commentary into that hour! It was a great show.
About Harlem Stage
The website says the following:
“Harlem Stage is a performing arts center that bridges Harlem’s cultural legacy to contemporary artists of color. For over 35 years, Harlem Stage has been a leading art organization, achieving this distinction through its work with artists of color and by engaging the communities it serves through the performing arts. Harlem Stage has developed a tradition of supporting artists and organizations from all over the world, and over the years, they have hosted concerts by a veritable Who’s Who of established and up-and-coming artists. Its education program yearly provides over 2,000 New York City children access to the rich diversity, excitement, and inspiration of the performing arts. In 2006, Harlem Stage opened the now renowned Harlem Stage Gatehouse, which was once an abandoned space, but is now a dynamic source of creativity and culture. Harlem Stage is a winner of the William Dawson Award for Programming Excellence and Sustained Achievement in Programming (Association of Performing Arts Presenters).”
To view a tape of this event, go to https://www.harlemstage.org/gala2020, or go to YouTube and enter “Celebrating Harlem Stage.”
Harlem Stage will be showing both archival events of past performances and new content. For more information, or to donate to the ongoing mission of the organization, go to www.harlemstage.org.