This year, in honor of Black History Month, Habans is highlighting the Harlem Renaissance, which took place from the 1920s to the 1930s in New York. This period was filled with the intellectual and cultural revival of Black music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics, scholarship, and more. Keep reading to learn more about this year’s performance from Habans Dance Teacher & Enrichment Grade-Level Chair, Brittney Reese.
Can you tell me about your role at Habans and how you got involved with the performance?
I am on the enrichment team as the dance teacher and the enrichment grade-level chair. Because I’m one of the performing enrichments, I’ve always had a key part in planning our Black History presentation.
What themes have you previously done for the performance?
In the past, we’ve done some cool ones. Once we focused on New Orleans and did a Preservation Hall-themed event. In the last couple of years, our focus has been more broad, featuring Black history, celebrating the future, and acknowledging things such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Why did Habans choose the Harlem Renaissance for this year’s performance?
I picked the Harlem Renaissance because I think we can sometimes get lost in the struggles of being Black in America during Black History Month. At Habans, our kids know a lot about the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, and protesting in the sense of marching with a sign and so forth. One of the reasons I like the Harlem Renaissance is because, after all, it was a kind of protest after the great migration. The Black population was considered American. They finally had opportunities after slavery and had the chance to get away from the restrictive and oppressive nature of the South. They migrated to the North and Harlem, New York became an epicenter of creativity. Plus, a lot of the creativity spoke of their oppression, so it’s a different form of protest to teach the kids about. This time provided a lot of Black expression that was never allowed before, through writing, singing, jazz, and dancing with the Lindy Hop.
What goals do you have for the performance?
I want the kids to know that you can be Black and creative. It doesn’t always have to be this oppressive struggle of marching and so forth, but you can protest and express yourself in many different ways. I also hope they gain the confidence to allow them to set free whatever creative tingle is inside of them. I want them to know that even while school is very concentrated on academic curriculums, it’s great to write out feelings and draw feelings and that creative outlets like these are essential. Lastly, I want them to see the other creative opportunities that Black people have had and have been successful at.
How were the performances planned?
Habans staff created a performance committee, and together we planned everything. First, we created lesson plans to help the scholars learn about the Harlem Renaissance, and we provided information on what it was like and other beneficial resources. Next, we compiled information about many different artists and musicians. We showed videos to contextualize the information, and then we talked about how we can see the continued influence of the Harlem Renaissance today.
I teach musical theater and had my 8th grader’s research specific topics. They will create infomercials to put into our performance about different figures from this period. The kids did the research themselves, I just gave them the tools, and they created it all.
How many performances will there be?
There will be ten performances in total, including a Langston Hughes poem and an Ella Fitzgerald performance in addition to a night show interview with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Many scholars will be acting as the figures, making it interactive and exciting for them.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a leader in this production for you?
The most rewarding thing is seeing the kids learn about something new and expanding their knowledge of their history. The performance also allows us to talk about the things we want to celebrate, and this year, we celebrate new leaders. For example, when learning about the Harlem Renaissance, the kids learn about something that happened a century ago! We then had our first ever all-Black entirely produced and written Broadway show, which hasn’t happened since. It’s been interesting to have those discussions this year, figure out areas where we still need to grow, all the while learning how awesome the Harlem Renaissance period was.
What’s one thing you hope the scholars take away from learning about this period?
I suggested this theme because it was a celebratory time in Black History. While the scholars recognize some of the names like Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong, they didn’t realize that they all were collectively together at the same period, creating art together. Hence, the Harlem Renaissance is a very symbolic moment in history. So many scholars have learned a lot about Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman, so it’s been a unique experience teaching them about this new period. I remind them that this was an incredible moment in time for creativity. So when they finally make that connection, they have a “wow” moment.