“This Way Forward” is the latest offering of The Hadley Players, a community theatre group nestled within the Harlem School of the Arts, located on 142nd Street and St Nicholas Avenue, and founded by 97-year-old Gertrude Jeannette, a denizen of the arts.
Ms. Jeannette is the playwright of “This Way Forward,” starring Colette Bryce, Maxx Carr, Khadim Diop, Albert Eggleston, Ivan Goris, Gary Lawson, Ralph McCain, Louise Mike, Janet Mitchell, Kimberlee Monroe, Ward Nixon, Arjenis Mora, Chantal Ngwa, Malek Ogee, Stacey Pryor, Jared Reinmuth, Sharon Shah, Rodney Sheley, Kalina Singleton, Kalvin Singleton, Donnell Smith, Nzintha Smith, Valarie Tekosky, Joan Valentina and Cookie Winborn. Ward Nixon directed the production.
Having written five plays, “This Way Forward” is the first play written by Ms. Jeannette per the suggestion and encouragement of Lee Strasberg, an American actor, director and acting teacher who had a profound influence on the American theatre and with whom Gertrude studied directing and playwriting. Strasberg was the director of the Actors Studio and the founder of the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and in Hollywood. Included among his students were: Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, James Dean and Elia Kazan. Naturally Gertrude wrote about what she knew, so penned details of having grown up in Arkansas on a large family farm. Although, in the play, there is no specific region mentioned other than the southwest. “This Way Forward” featuring a 24-character cast, is based on accounts from Miss Jeanette’s childhood when both whites and Blacks sharecropped and had large families to help provide the labor to work their farms. Therefore, few children had the luxury of an education beyond the fifth grade.
Naturally every generation wants their children to do better, so Bertha Crawford (Valarie Tekosky), the wife of Dan Crawford (Ralph McCain) the central characters in the play, was determined to extend the community’s all-black school to the level of 9th grade. More educated than her husband, Bertha initially had to convince her husband and then eventually the rest of the community who were more concerned with survival than education, of the importance of a higher education. Although the Great Depression did not hit until 1929, there was a small recession in 1924 and then another one in 1927. Naturally, whatever affected whites, affected Black people twice as much. But this play did not dwell on material poverty but rather poverty of the mind. Bertha saw education as a way of giving black children opportunity and a choice outside of sharecropping.
Dan Crawford had gone as far as the fifth grade and believed he had all the book learning he needed since he had acquired a large farm. He was generous in giving his time and labor to his neighbors, but was the kind of proud man that would not ask anything of his neighbors ― preferring to run his farm primarily by the sweat of his brow and that of his two sons ― Herman (Gary Lawson) and Floyd (Donnell Smith). The Crawford neighbors were played by Albert Eggleston as Rev. Jackson, Tom Williams (Ward Nixon), Stacey Pryor as Sarah, Kimberlee Monroe as Minnie and Cookie Winborn as Aunt Effie (Louise Mike alternated). The ladies often got together to form sewing-bees and gossip. Segregation was still in effect during the era of this play, thus making Aunt Effie essential to the life and death of the community as their midwife since oft-times Black folks were barred admittance to hospitals. While the ladies gossiped, their husbands joked and drank, but the younger men found their recreation occasionally on the seedier side of town where they found their entertainment in the form of liquor, dice, cards, loose women and the occasional fist fight. This often frightened Bertha whose ambitions for her older son Herman were not shared by him. Her constant efforts to push her son to stay in school only caused him to dig in his heels and misinterpret his mother’s intentions toward him. Eventually this divide brought about tragic results.
This production has a limited engagement with the last show on Sunday, May 27th at 2:30 pm.
Community theatres are struggling all throughout New York and it is up to us the theatergoer and lovers of art to keep our theatres thriving. In doing so, we keep our history alive and our stories told. Open your wallets and send your donations to the Hadley Players, c/o St. Philips Church, 204 West 134th Street, NYC, 10030, so that we can live into perpetuity through our art forms.
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