STEVE JACKSON, Editor In Cheif
Last Wednesday, Eaton Chapel held an unforgettable, unconventional performance: “Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance.” Written by Akin Babatunde, award-winning actor, director and writer, the show provides a glimpse of an important era in American history. The performance was brought to campus by Black Students United as part of Black History Month.
The show is an unusual mix of theater and chamber music—a sort of hybrid of operetta and spoken-word. There is only one actor, hopping between portrayals of prominent figures from the Harlem Renaissance. The music is performed by the Core Ensemble, consisting of piano, cello and percussion. They played classics from the likes of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, as well as more contemporary chamber pieces. The music is far more than background; it adds emotional weight to every scene, filling the spare set and taking each monologue to a higher level.
The show opens on a parlor in an evening in 1935. The ensemble began with a disjointed, harsh and brooding piece by modern composer Jeffrey Mumford. They seamlessly transitioned to “Epistrophy,” an urgently-paced swing tune by Thelonious Monk. Enter Aaron Douglas, painter and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He has invited several friends over for a party and hired a chamber music ensemble to entertain for the evening.
In the following scenes, we meet his guests (none of whom attend the party): a sickly and bitter Claude McKay; a flamboyant and nearly destitute Countee Cullen; and a pensive Langston Hughes. Each scene mixes poetry, music and historical fact to portray the cultural movement that was the Harlem Renaissance through the eyes of these men.
The Core Ensemble has a rotating line-up of musicians. Wednesday’s performance featured Katie Schlaikjer on cello, Chien-I Yang on piano and Michael Parola on percussion. Parola founded the Core Ensemble in 1993.
The performers in Wednesday night’s show live all over the country and lead professional lives of their own. They gather together when it comes time to tour a performance. “It feels like we’re part of a family,” said Schlaikjer.
“Of Ebony Embers” usually tours throughout January and February, playing concerts to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and celebrate Black History Month.
The ensemble performs multiple shows that mix chamber music with narrative theater. “Ain’t I A Woman!” celebrates the lives of four African American women: Sojourner Truth, Zora Neale Hurston, Clementine Hunter and Fannie Lou Hamer. “Mona Lisa Speaks” imagines what Mona Lisa would have to say about the men who have possessed her over time. “Los Valientes” explores the artistic and humanitarian passions of three Latin American activists. Every show is educational as well as artistic, focusing on minority biographies and the untold aspects of history.
“It’s a genre they really invented,” said Schlaikjer.
The single actor in the show is Chris White. He has a tremendous range, and the ability to switch personas at the drop of a hat. White specializes in musical theater. When he’s not touring the country for performances, he lives in New York City.
“I get a special kick out of doing this show, because of the educational aspect,” said White. “This is rewarding in a different way.”