Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 3: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance — Harlem Dramaturgy Project , Lafayette Theatre , Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance , Tree of Hope — AAPEX

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 3: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance

The Tree of Hope
and the
Lafayette Theatre

They use to look like this:

Lafayette Theatre/Tree of Hope, Harlem, circa 1920's

That's the Tree of Hope in front of the legendary Lafayette Theatre up on 7th Ave at 132nd Street in Harlem.

This is what happened to the tree:

That plaque was put there in 1941 by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (with the assistance of NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia) to mark the spot where the tree had been before it was chopped down to make room for the expansion of 7th Ave (the "Boulevard of Dreams") in 1934. Much of it was sold for firewood but some of it was sold as souvenirs to people who believed it would bring them luck.

Say what? Tradition had it that out-of-work performers would rub the tree for good luck in landing a gig. Everybody who was anybody at the beginning of their careers stopped by to rub the tree with this simple request, "Hope to get a gig." This included future luminaries such as Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson, and Eubie Blake. That's what my main character Billy Rhythm does when he returns to Harlem in my play Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance.

As for the 1,223-seat Lafayette Theatre, it was the first theatre in NYC to desegregate when it opened in 1912 and remained that way for a very long time before all the NYC theatres desegregated. This meant that Harlemites could finally sit in the orchestra instead of just the balcony (disparagingly labeled "nigger heaven")-- the only seats they could sit in any NYC theater-- if they were allowed to buy tickets in the first place. Known as "the House Beautiful" because of its ornate Renaissance Revival architecture and interior, it was home to the Lafayette Players, one of the first African-American professional theatre troupes (1916).

In 1936, 20-year-old Orson Welles used the theatre in a reimagined Shakespeare's Macbeth set in Haiti. Because of its African American cast (the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Unit) and setting, it was labeled "Voodoo Macbeth." It sold out for 10-weeks before moving to Broadway followed by a national tour. This is what it looked like on opening night:

Orson Welles' Macbeth opening night
at the Lafayette Theatre, 1936.

It was said "10,000 people stood as close as they could to the theatre," jamming 7th Avenue for 10-blocks and "halting northbound traffic for more than an hour." The New York World Telegram reported that an integrated group of "Harlemites in ermine, orchids, and gardenias, Broadwayites in mufti" had filled every seat. Scalpers were getting $3.00 for a pair of 40-cent tickets. The New York Times reported the audience was "enthusiastic and noisy" and encouraged Macbeth's soliloquies.

In between performances by the Lafayette Players and such, the Lafayette showcased acts of all types and in this regard was the precursor of the Apollo Theatre (which until 1934 was called the "Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater" and did not admit blacks. That changed in 1934 when Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned for mayor against burlesque and it reopened as a desegregated theatre with a new name: the 125th Street Apollo). Today the Apollo Theatre is home to what may be the only piece of the original "Tree of Hope" thanks to an enterprising visionary and performer named Ralph Cooper, Jr. He bought a 12" x 18" piece and brought it back to his dressing room at the Apollo where he had it sanded, shellacked and mounted to an iconic column. That night just before the first "Amateur Night at the Apollo" show began, it was placed stage right just outside the curtain so the audience could see it. Since then it's become de rigueur to touch the Tree of Hope for all Wednesday Amateur Night performers.

As for the Lafayette's fate, unlike so many of the famous landmarks of old Harlem-- the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and more-- it's still with us but in 1990 it was "reimagined" as the Williams Institute C.M.E. Baptist Church to make it more "church-like." That's too bad because I think God would have been comfortable in the building as it was. Unfortunately, preservationists were too late and this is what we got, a very forbidding and unfriendly structure that appears to be barricading itself against the temptations of the outside world just beyond those massive walls and doors:

Williams Institute C.M.E. Baptist Church

To quote one of my favorite Harlem Renaissance poets, Countee Cullen--who apparently no one at the church was reading at the time of the transformation:

And what would I do in heaven, pray,
Me with my dancing feet,
And limbs like apple boughs that sway
When the gusty rain winds beat?
And how would I thrive in a Perfect place...
Where dancing be sin,
With not a man to love my face
Nor an arm to hold me in?”
--from She of the Dancing Feet Sings, 1926

I'm sure souls are being saved behind those closed doors, but what a loss for Harlem in terms of its history. I wonder what would have happened if the church had left the building alone. Do you think people would be lining up out front like they did back in the day for Macbeth; banging on the doors in hopes of getting in to get saved and closer to Jesus?

DC Copeland

You can follow this series by clicking the "Harlem Dramaturgy Project" in the Labels section below.
Jaz Dorsey

1 comment:

  1. That s a reality in Harlem. Theaters are being turned into churches.... While downtown, churches are being turned into theaters.