‘The Talented Tenth’ explores African-American success—and its high price

‘The Talented Tenth’ explores African-American success—and its high price

Nic Few, Jessica Obilom / Josh Estey

LOS ANGELES — First produced in 1989, The Talented Tenth has become a classic of Black American dramatic literature. Yet its timeliness has not faded at all, its relevance undimmed by the years. It is currently running in a fine professional production by the Robey Theatre Company, named for Paul Robeson and founded by Danny Glover and Ben Guillory, who acts in the play and also produced and directed it. Guillory, as much as or more than anyone, is the dean of African-American theater in L.A.

Readers familiar with the writings of scholar, activist, social reformer, and late-in-life Communist Party member W.E.B. DuBois, will recall the title of this play from a 1903 article in which he described the potential and necessity for one in ten Black men becoming leaders of their people by continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. Over time, Du Bois deepened his understanding to recognize that critical leadership could also emerge from grassroots community and labor struggles, and of course would also include women.

And where were those leaders going to come from? That was, and to a degree continues to be, the historic charge of the HBCUs—the historically black colleges and universities—established at a time, mostly after the Civil War, when public and private institutions of higher learning were off-limits to African Americans. Howard University, in Washington, D.C., has been perhaps the most prolific of these HBCUs, supplying generations of leaders in every field to establish an African-American foothold where none existed before. Set in 1993, The Talented Tenth portrays a clutch of Howard graduates who have succeeded, as reflected by the obvious symbols—the big house, the new cars, the expensive resort vacations, the gym memberships and golf games, the accomplished families and, sometimes, the mistress on the side.

Nic Few and Ben Guillory / John Estey

Not surprisingly, the playwright, Newark-born Richard Wesley, is a 1967 Howard graduate himself. He knows these people. And is one of them. A member of the New Lafayette Theater from 1970 through 1973, he served as managing editor of its Black Theatre magazine. He went on to write plays, films, television scripts and opera librettos, including Five, with music composed by Anthony Davis (whose opera Malcolm X has just received a long overdue, critically hailed production at the Metropolitan Opera). Five was subsequently revised, becoming The Central Park Five (with a cameo portraying the New York real estate magnate Donald Trump), performed in 2019 by the Long Beach Opera Company, and reviewed at the time here. Anthony Davis was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for music for this opera. The announcement called it “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and helpful.” The final page on Richard Wesley’s career has not yet been written, of course, but his libretto for that opera may turn out to be his crowning achievement.

Wesley is currently an Associate Professor in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and is a member of the Selection Committee for the Black Film Festival of the Newark Museum. He also serves on the board of the Newark Performing Arts Corporation at Symphony Hall, and is an advisor to the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers University in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ben Guillory was not born yesterday. He acknowledges, in a program note, that the class of “intellectually superior” leaders “do not always produce the kind of person who contains values and true unwavering character motivated by a clear and deep desire to serve the best interest of the people.” In other words, in the America we know, cupidity, pride, egotism, pride, colorism, classism, even criminality are accessible to everybody, from any background. It’s that borderland area that Wesley is interested in exploring.

Early on in the three-hour play (with one intermission), we meet Bernard Evans (Nic Few), an eager, aspiring candidate for the position of radio station manager, being interviewed by Griggs (Ben Guillory), the owner of a small chain of Black radio stations, who will be Bernard’s boss and mentor. Over the years, Bernard’s programming decisions, including much Black-infused music and lots of advocacy news coverage from the community and the street, have boosted the stations’ ratings and significantly increased its commercial value. He is content to be in a position where his youthful civil rights activism can find its mature voice through his work.

Bernard has a beautiful, capable wife Pam (Tiffany Coty)—lighter-skinned than he, which becomes a plot point later on—who has borne him four children over the course of their 17-year marriage. They maintain close contact with their old Howard classmates, taking vacations together: In fact, the opening scene of the play has them lolling on a beach in Negril, Jamaica, where they enjoy the classy comforts of a resort hotel without risking any forays into the interior of the country. Bernard still has bigger plans for the Black radio stations that would further serve and uplift his community. But a sense of adventure, of his cresting manhood and social position, of boredom and anxiety over his mid-life existence, leads him to secretly take on a bright “woman of substance,” the sexy, darker-skinned younger Tanya (Jessica Obilom) as his mistress, who increasingly places demands on him—for a ring.

Tiffany Coty and Monte Escalante / Josh Estey

Bernard feels more conflict about betraying his original radical principles and giving in to Griggs’s dictum that “money begets power,” than about cheating on his wife. In particular, he remembers a dark-skinned militant woman he was once in love with, Habiba, who took her identification with Africa to the utmost by joining the Angolan independence movement, and dying in battle. Does he see Tanya as his imaginary new Habiba?

At the crux of the play is Griggs’s consideration of a lucrative offer from the white-owned media corporation Pegasus International for his chain of radio stations. Under its new ownership, Bernard would occupy a figurehead position, helpless to prevent its transition to “infotainment,” a total commercialization of the work he has created. But where would the capital come from to counter Pegasus’s offer? And how will Bernard’s complicated domestic life resolve itself?

The Talented Tenth tackles many issues, not the least of them the unspoken conflicts holding over from the old Howard days about racial hue, national identity, and what was known then as “Negritude.” Why did Pam choose Bernard, and why did he choose her? There seems barely enough time to adequately investigate all these topics, and it takes multiple scenes, each with a minute or two to reset the stage, to properly juggle this amount of information. After a while, with its many set changes, I thought, Did the playwright originally conceive of this as a movie—or that a movie could be made from the play? In that medium, the flow between scenes would be almost invisible; here it seemed, of necessity, a little clunky.

The playwright Richard Wesley

But overall, the production is modestly proportioned and certainly holds a playgoer’s attention. The acting is superb, helmed as it is by Mr. Guillory. Also appearing in it are Julio Hanson as Marvin, and Monte Escalante as his wife Rowena, Stirling Bradley as another Howard classmate Ron who has dreams of striking it rich in today’s Africa, and Rogelio Douglas III as a Young Man.

Ed Haynes is responsible for the production design, and Cydney Wayne Davis for the music. James Manning is the sound engineer, Jason Mimms the graphic designer, Naila Aladdin Sanders the costume designer, Benedict Conran the lighting designer, and Rye Mandel the prop master.

The Robey Theatre Company’s The Talented Tenth plays through Dec. 10 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013, with performances Thurs. through Sat. at 8:00 p.m. and Sun. at 3:00 p.m. Q&A’s will follow Sunday performances. Tickets are available through the Robey website.

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Eric A. Gordon

On this day in 1908, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African American Congressman from New York, was born

Born on November 29, 1908, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the first African American elected to Congress from New York, marking him as the first from any state in the Northeast.

Adam Clayton Powell’s tenure in Congress, from January 3, 1945, to January 3, 1971, marked an era of change and progress. His legacy endures as a testament to the enduring fight for equality and justice. He was recently portrayed in the Bayard Rustin biopic “Rustin.”

On this day, we honor his lasting impact, recognizing his pivotal role in shaping the course of American history and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. passed away at 63 years old in 1972. Happy heavenly birthday to Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Click play to listen to the AURN News report from Clay Cane. Follow @claycane & @aurnonline for more.

The post On this day in 1908, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African American Congressman from New York, was born appeared first on American Urban Radio Networks.

Longtime Champions of Black Art Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz Are Bringing Their Collection to the Brooklyn Museum

The art collection of Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys and Kasseem Dean, the Grammy-winning rapper and producer known as Swizz Beatz, will be on view as part of the exhibition “Giants: Art from the Dean Collection of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys” at the Brooklyn Museum from February 10 to July 7, 2024. The married duo’s collection champions the work of Black artists.

The exhibition will showcase the work of approximately 40 artists from the Dean Collection, which includes pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Arthur Jafa, Esther Mahlangu, Amy Sherald, Lorna Simpson, and Kehinde Wiley. It also boasts the most works by Gordon Parks held by private collectors.

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“Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys have been among the most vocal advocates for Black creatives to support Black artists through their collecting, advocacy, and partnerships. In the process, they have created one of the most important collections of contemporary art,” Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak said in a statement.

Divided into different sections, the show will highlight the couple’s creative efforts and aspects of how the collection was brought together. “On the Shoulders of Giants,” for example, showcases the work of artists who “have left an indelible mark on the world,” while “Giant Conversations” will explore Black social issues. Another section, “Giant Presence,” displays monumental artworks from the collection, among them, Nina Chanel Abney’s Catfish (2017).

Dean was previously on the Brooklyn Museum’s board from 2015 until last month.

Two ARTnews Top 200 Collectors, the native New Yorkers have long been passionate about supporting Black creatives. “There are far too many artists of all kinds—musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers—who have unfortunately contributed so much to the culture and have died with nothing,” Keys previously told ARTnews. “As artists [ourselves], we care about living artists and the just due that we receive.”

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Birmingham’s ‘Men of Change’ exhibit on influential African American men closes this weekend

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth,” an exhibit collaboration between The Birmingham Public Library and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is concluding its 10-week run this weekend. 

The traveling exhibit, which opened on September 16, presents “the narrative of a nation” through the profiles of significant African American men in the country’s history. Birmingham is the final stop on a 10-city national tour.

The Tower of Prayer, a Leeds church, is bringing a dozen men in its TOP Men’s Fellowship to see the exhibit in person at noon Saturday before it closes, said Apostle C. Shaemun Webster.

“We consider ourselves to be men of change in our communities and wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about these powerful Men of Change featured in this exhibit,” Webster said. “We appreciate the Birmingham Public Library and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for bringing this Men of Change exhibit to our region.”

The exhibit will close on Saturday. For more information, visit the Birmingham Public Library website here.

Beyoncé’s ‘RENAISSANCE’ Film Estimated To Make Over $30M During Global Box Office Opening

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé is arguably one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, following the actual tour itself this summer. After the domestic premiere on Saturday (Nov. 25), Deadline has predicted that the documentary is projected to earn between $30-40 million during its global opening weekend.

RENAISSANCE World Tour is the eighth highest-grossing concert tour of all time and the highest grossing by a Black artist. Yet, despite its $600 million profit from ticket sales, sources say that Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour film will still rank higher than Bey’s film—the former earned $92.8 million at the box office, domestically. The outlet also noted that first-day presales for Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé brought in $6 million, compared to Eras Tour’s $37 million.

However, the RENAISSANCE film numbers may rival Michael Jackson’s This Is It, which earned $23.2 million during its opening weekend in 2009.

Beyoncé Renaissance World Tour film

Andrew White

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé is a look into her personal renaissance, just as much as it’s a behind-the-scenes into the making of the tour. It’s an emotionally riveting dive into the mind of Beyoncé as it relates to being a student of the greats like Tina Turner and Diana Ross, a director, a mother of three, a daughter, and a Houston native.

We see a raw peek into how a four-year process began a musical experience. Not only was Bey intentional about every single aspect of the show, but she also triumphed personal battles like relinquishing her hesitation about having Blue Ivy perform and rehabilitating her knee after having surgery one month before rehearsals started.

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At one point when giving notes, she reflects on what it’s like to helm a ship of this magnitude. “Communicating as a Black woman, everything is a fight [but] eventually, they realize this b***h will not give up,” said the 42-year-old.

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé includes some surprises throughout—including during the credits—and will reveal how Bey sees her next chapter. It arrives in theaters on Friday (Dec. 1).

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Brookline renames Heath School after Roland Hayes

Earlier this month, the town of Brookline approved renaming Heath Elementary School the Roland Hayes School. An internationally renowned Black tenor and composer whose manly, melodic voice moved countless concertgoers, Hayes almost singlehandedly paved the way for Black concert singers such as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Leontyne Price to perform in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. He lived on Allerton Street in Brookline for nearly 50 years. 

Efforts to rename the Heath School had been underway since 2021, when the Brookline School Committee’s Ad Hoc Task Force on School Names discovered that John Heath, the Heath family patriarch, had enslaved five people. 

“For us, when we learned that information, it felt like too far afield. We were not interested in walking under that moniker,” school principal Asa Sevelius told Brookline News last June.

Brookline’s Heath School is now the Roland Hayes School. COURTESY PHOTO

Beginning the process of changing the school’s name, a student renaming committee proposed five names: Roland Hayes, METCO founder Ruth Batson, sculptor and painter John Wilson, and abolitionists Ellen and William Craft. Students, families and staff then voted on the names, selecting Hayes. After the School Committee and task force subsequently approved the renaming, Town Meeting members gave final approval on Nov. 16. 

The Heath Elementary School is the second school in Brookline to have had its name changed in recent years. In 2021, the Devotion School — temporarily renamed the Coolidge Corner School — was formally renamed for Florida Ruffin Ridley, a Black late-19th-century teacher, clubwoman, suffragist and anti-lynching advocate. Ridley and her husband, Ulysses Archibald Ridley Jr., a prominent tailor, were among the first Black homeowners in Brookline, having purchased a home at 131 Kent St. in 1896.

About Roland Hayes

Roland Wiltse Hayes was born in a three-room cabin in Curryville, Georgia, on June 3, 1887. His parents, Fanny and William Hayes, were tenant farmers who toiled in the fields and hunted to provide for their seven children. When William died in 1898, Fanny — who Roland affectionately called Angel Mo’ — moved the family to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Hayes dropped out of school after completing the fifth grade and worked at an iron foundry to help support his family.  He attended church regularly and sang in the church choir. Impressed by his exceptional singing voice, Arthur Calhoun gave him two singing lessons a week in Chattanooga when he was 16 and introduced him to the great opera singers Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.

Hayes decided at that time to sing professionally. He spent four years at Fisk University in Nashville, toured with the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1911 and recorded nine spirituals with three members of the choir for the Edison Phonograph Company. Upon his return to Nashville, he decided to move to Boston, where he believed he had a better chance of becoming a professional musician. Over the next few years, he continued his vocal training with the renowned bass vocalist Arthur Hubbard in Boston and pursued academic study at Harvard University’s extension school.

For several years, Hayes also toured with baritone William Richardson and pianist William Lawrence as the Hayes Trio.

In July 1916, Boston Herald music critic Philip Hale praised the tenor, describing his voice as “unusually good,” and adding, “The natural quality is beautiful. It is a luscious yet manly voice. Mr. Hayes sings freely and with good taste.”

Accompanied by classical composer and arranger Henry Thacker Burleigh, Hayes made his debut at Boston Symphony Hall on the night of Nov. 15, 1917, performing in a recital for a sold-out audience. Despite critical acclaim, he attracted little public support. After another more successful recital, he sailed to London, England, in April 1920, intending to study music.

With pianist Lawrence Brown as his accompanist, Hayes made his debut at London’s Aeolian Hall in May 1920. It was a successful performance, which not only led to more engagements in England but, most notably, led to a command performance on April 23 the following year at Buckingham Palace before King George V and Queen Mary. 

Hayes said in his autobiography, “On my way home from Buckingham Palace, I sent a cable to my mother to say that I had sung before the King and Queen. I heard from friends that Ma was immensely pleased, but she herself, fearful lest I be swollen with pride, simply replied, ‘Remember who you are and give credit where it is due.’” His appearance before royalty won him worldwide acclaim, and he returned to the United States in 1923 a celebrity.

On Nov. 15, 1923, Hayes became the first African American artist to appear as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over the next two decades, he sang with first-rate symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Europe — in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Amsterdam. His classical music, which he sang in German, French and Italian, impressed concert audiences wherever he toured.

Hayes received many honors during his lifetime. For example, on July 1, 1924, at its 15th annual conference in Philadelphia, the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American.

In 1932, Hayes married his cousin, Helen Alzada Mann. With him, she bore a daughter named Afrika Franzada.

In 1942, Hayes published his autobiography, “Angel Mo’ and Her Son, Roland Hayes,” and in 1948, he published a collection of spirituals with Little, Brown & Co., entitled “My Songs; Aframerican Religious Folk Songs Arranged and Interpreted by Roland Hayes.”   

From the 1940s until his retirement in 1973, Hayes sang intermittently, giving recitals once a year at Carnegie Hall in New York and concerts at Fisk University and other universities.

He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953.

Hayes held honorary degrees from nine schools, including the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston University, Fisk University, Howard University, Temple University and Morehouse College. Later in life, he became a voice teacher. He continued to perform until age 85, when he gave his last concert at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge.

He died of pneumonia at 89 on New Year’s Day, 1977. 

To honor Hayes’ legacy, the Boston School Committee in 1981 named the musical arts facility at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury the Roland Hayes Division of Music, now known as the Roland Hayes School of Music.

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Highland council passes resolution condemning hate speech

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