By Kia Standard
As the audience settles into the theater, the stage is set with an upright bass, a drum set, and a small piano, all the elements necessary for a great night of jazz standards reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance. The trio of musicians enters and warms up the crowd with a spirited rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Moments later, Julia Breanetta Simpson greets us dressed in a red overcoat, accented with short white gloves and a floral scarf tied neatly under her chin. She begins the evening with the story of the Great Migration, the era when thousands of African Americans made the pilgrimage from the Southern United States, to Northern cities and points in the Midwest and West, searching for a better life. A large part of the population landed in urban centers such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City.
Next, she time‑travels to the start of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural movement of African‑American and Caribbean artists, intellectuals and free‑thinkers that spanned the time period from 1910 to the mid‑1930s. Notables from this illustrious group included writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. During this emergence of African‑American creative self‑expression, poetry, literature and art pushed boundaries. And let’s not forget about the music and the dancing; jazz and the Charleston were all the rage.
Ms. Simpson paints 1930s Harlem with broad colorful strokes; she talks about neighborhood rent parties and fish fries, the lively nightlife at venues like The Cotton Club and The Savoy, and the bigger‑than‑life personalities of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Ms. Simpson infuses her storytelling with a bit of song and dance, paying tribute to the great divas of the day: Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and Josephine Baker. The show’s song list includes the time‑honored favorites “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” “This Joint is Jumpin’,” “Black and Blue,” and “Harlem on My Mind,” to name a few.
There is only one problem, and it’s a big one. Ms. Simpson does not have the prowess to pull off the vocals of her predecessors. Her tiny squeak of a voice barely makes it past the footlights of the stage. The legendary vocalists she has chosen to emulate have left very large shoes to fill, and unfortunately Ms. Simpson is not up to this task. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but Ms. Simpson has set herself up for such a comparison.
Another foible of “Harlem on My Mind” is that its structure feels like a cabaret show trapped inside a history lesson. There is a lot of information woven throughout the text, yet there is very little substance. The show has the familiar ring of earlier Broadway musical revues like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Sophisticated Ladies,” but this show does not have the same stylization or flair. Although these examples are full‑scale productions, more intimate shows also come to mind: “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill” and “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.” Truthfully, I was hoping for a fresh take on the vibrant era of the Harlem Renaissance; however, the show doesn’t offer up any new insights. Instead, it safely bounces along the surface, although it had many opportunities to go deeper.
“Harlem on My Mind” has an interesting concept, but sadly the execution falls flat. On a happy note, I will always think of Harlem with warm regards.
“Harlem on My Mind”
Performed by Julia Breanetta Simpson
Directed by Shaunelle Perry
Musical Director: Mario Sprouse
Tuesday, October 8th at 7:30PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She received an MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms. Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.