Raisin’ a Renaissance
Emilie Kefalas | Wednesday, September 24, 2014
When in hindsight the world dubs a certain point on history’s timeline as a “renaissance,” it is not done so as an afterthought, or as a word just carelessly thrown out in the open like a golf ball. An event as influential as a “renaissance” must be a transformation, a transcendence, a novelty so impactful upon a people, that all cultural expression henceforth will be attributed to it. Thus, I transition to my recent encounter with “Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey.”
High school history briefly introduced me to this portrait of a 1920’s New York neighborhood free from fighting a war overseas but still fighting for equal and civil rights back home. No matter the teacher, the true taste of Harlem’s artistry was never properly observed aside from two or three textbook sentences flatly explaining the impact of poets such as Langston Hughes. At O’Laughlin Auditorium last Thursday, however, I not only consumed a cleverly disguised history lesson, but also a time-defying performance of the music, poetry and prose of the Harlem Renaissance.
This instrumental movement of artistry is, in my opinion, underrepresented in current culture seeing as its influence on modern music and interpretation is nothing less than paramount. The genres of rap, pop, rock and even alternative would be nonexistent if not for this “explosion of innovation” in African American literary, musical, theatrical and visual arts.
I had the great opportunity to write a news piece about the performance which included the talents of the fun and emotive Jasmine Guy and the jazzy and jammin’ Avery Sharpe Trio. My interviewing excursions brought me to this one-night-only experience in hopes that I would be inspired by a line or two of observation. I was quite caught off guard when Guy began to recite the words of Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Bennet, all African American writers whose work hurled into the field of change. I quickly found out the title of the show was inspired by the 1923 novel “Cane” by Toomer, a literary game-changer for African American self-expressionism.
Free from slavery yet not entirely liberated from the prejudices of law and society, blacks made their voices heard through a revolution of ideas and thoughts. Guy was the Judi Dench of this renaissance, with her musical accompaniment playing as much of a role in the storytelling. Her big, brass and bold personality handled O’Laughlin’s space with grace and sass, captivating the audience of students, faculty and members of the community from start to finish with her sizzling sound and fabulous dance moves. And the music! Oh my, child, let me tell you about all that jazz. Sharpe’s band of cellist, drummer and violinist harmonized so well, I forgot I was listening to a three-piece set. Every element of imagery and sound collided to form an effective melody, completed with images and videos of writers and scenes of the period projected onto a screen above the onstage talent. Guy recited poetry and literature, sang authentic renditions of Bessie Smith among other artists, all in 20s getup, giving the audience a history lesson in one of history’s flourishing generations of African American voices.
Those who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance were hopeful their words would alter their people’s future. At the same time, they were still struggling with the past and present. What Guy and the Avery Sharpe Trio have achieved is a collage of thoughts, songs and images that exhibit nothing less than an outstanding ovation of creativity. This was realized with Guy’s final recitation of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”
“Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!”