She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind: 3 Plays by Eulalie Spence
Rediscovery of three prize-winning one acts from Harlem Renaissance writer Eulalie Spence set in Harlem in 1927.
The problem with rediscovering lost plays from the past is that works that are 100 years old may have gotten dated or express views no longer held. Back in the 1920’s, Harlem Renaissance author Eulalie Spence wrote a great many prize-winning one acts for which she could not get full productions. Metropolitan Playhouse is correcting that oversight by offering an evening of three of these entitled She’s Got Harlem on her Mind. Unfortunately, they play like short stories rather than fully formed plays. As the characters are mainly grifters and con-artists, they do not show African-American life in the 1920’s in a very good light. A great deal of care and thought has gone into Timothy Johnson’s production which is set in 1927 including period songs between the plays and before and after, but his direction is often too slow and much of the acting is too studied to be naturalistic.
The curtain raiser, “The Starter,” is more a premise than a play. T.J. Kelly and his girl Georgia meet in a park. He is a “starter,” an elevator operator who supervises the schedules in an office building. His girlfriend Georgia turns out to be a “finisher” of dresses in her line as a seamstress. While the idea of a starter and a finisher getting together amuses them, she discovers that he does not have enough money on which to get married and their engagement may not come about.
Although SJ Hannah and Déja Denise Green are quite charming as the couple, we learn so little about them that they remain ciphers. Monique Paige and Jazmyn D Boone as passersby who also want to sit on the bench that Kelly is hogging have so few lines that their roles are entirely disposable. The play is distinguished by set designer Vincent Gunn’s magnificent backdrop view of the city from the higher vantage of the park which later is used successfully as the view out the window for the other two plays.
The title of the second play “Hot Stuff” is ironic: not only does heroine Fanny King run a business in discounted hot dresses and stockings, but in her number of romantic affairs she has going as a married woman she is hot stuff indeed. Very quickly we discover that she is two-timing her customers as well as her husband Walter who is away for the evening. By the end she has learned nothing from her experiences and is preparing to go out on the town with a goodtime Charley.
While the play ought to move at a swift pace, there is often too much dead time. The play is well cast but some of the acting is rather artificial and awkward. As Fanny, Raven Jeannette is vivacious as a numbers runner as well as the dealer in hot merchandise but at times she is rather artificial. She also gives us no clue as to the backstory or subtext to explain how she ended up like this. Oher than Dontonio Demarco as her brutal husband who seems to be wise to her ways, the other characters pass by so quickly that we don’t get much of a sense of them.
The final play, “The Hunch” is the most substantial but the plot seems a bit overly familiar. Mavis Cunningham is packing to marry her boyfriend Bert Jackson, the sought after young man she only knows four weeks. However, her previous boyfriend Steve Collins who may not be as slick has a hunch that Bert is not what he seems. Not only does Steve prove his case to the naïve and inexperienced Mavis, but he also wins enough on the numbers to be a much better matrimonial prospect. Jazmyn D Boone is quite believable as the naïve Mavis but the play tells us almost nothing about her except she has come to New York from Raleigh and doesn’t plan on going back. While Terrell Wheeler is a smooth customer as Bert Jackson, other than the fact that he is quite attentive to Mavis we don’t see the desired man about town that he is described to be. In a change of pace, Demarco plays the rather simple Steve who wins in the end. Monique Paige and Ms. Jeannette are amusing as women of the world who are much wiser that Mavis.
Jevyn Nelms’ 1920’s costumes are both attractive and varied. Both the men and the women are given chic outfits that are pitch-perfect for the period. The lighting design by Leslie Gray shifts from sunny skies for the park scene to the blue-bathed evening scenes of the two indoor plays. The intimacy and fight direction of Katie Bradley is perfectly suitable for the storylines. Director Johnson is also responsible for the original music for the prelude and entr’acte music and the setting of the song “Honey! Say Don’t Yuh Know,” as well as the choice of the Twenties popular songs, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” and “Everybody Loves My Baby.”
It would be a pleasure to report that She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind heralds the rediscovery of a major African American female playwright like Alice Childress in 2021 and 2022. Unfortunately, these three one-act plays, while entertaining, seem thin and undernourished. They are in no way major lost works. It would be interesting to see one of Spence’s more ambitious full length plays like The Whipping which was sold to Paramount Pictures after an abortive stage production but was so drastically rewritten that it was unrecognizable as Eulalie Spence’s original play.
She’s Got Harlem on Her Mind: 3 Plays by Eulalie Spence (through March 12, 2023)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E.4th Street, second floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.MetropolitanPlayhouse.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
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