Off-Broadway Recommendation: MECCA IS BURNING (Negro Ensemble Company)

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by Tony Frankel on August 17, 2023

in Theater-New York

A composite play by four playwrights, Mecca Is Burning — which closes Sunday at the Harlem School of the Arts — confronts social and racial themes through the use of protest poetry, dialogue and monologues examining our current social climate from the perspective of four fictional Harlem families. The work was collaboratively written by Cris Eli Blak, Lisa McCree, Levy Lee Simon and Mona R. Washington under the leadership of Karen Brown, Artistic Director and Executive Producer of Negro Ensemble Company, who directs the piece.

Marcus laments
The play opens with a character named Marcus (Benjamin Rowe) lamenting the cultural loss of his childhood neighborhood. It then visits four families who might exemplify the region’s impending upheavals.

The title suggests how Harlem, once considered the Mecca for Black Americans, is moving further and further away from its roots as a cauldron of Black culture. In the play, four Black families who inhabit a brownstone in Harlem variously face up to a crisis that could be imagined from the Trump-drugged, factional politics we are living with today. It mixes live music, dance, civil rights era poetry, and contemporary prose, taking inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.” The piece aims to illuminate the fragile perspective of contemporary African Americans: a population battered by gentrification, the retraction of equality and human rights, cultural suppression and the actual possibility of civil war with far-right extremists.

Candace an Marcus
Candace (Joy Renee LeBlanc) and Marcus (Benjamin Rowe).

In “From Rage and Reason,” the section by Levy Lee Simon, Candace and Marcus are both professionals. Marcus discovers that his wife is a militant and he didn’t know it.

Kenya Wilson and Alton Ra
Kenya Wilson and Alton Ray.

In “Down to the White Meat,” the section by Lisa McCree, a couple is at odds in their responses to impending violence. Dee’ Ja-Ray wants to move back to Connecticut, where she grew up, but A’Brian insists on staying in Harlem because it’s the world he knows.

Reginald L. Barnes and Tatiana Perry
Reginald L. Barnes and Tatiana Perry.

In “Papa Goes Away, Papas Never Stay,” the section by Chris Eli Blak, Henry is an everyman laborer and Domenica is his college-bound daughter. As a civil war in Harlem is breaking out between white supremacists and local Black residents, Henry intends to fight for the first time in his life. He had never before challenged the system to gain respect as a Black man. Domenica fears she’ll have nothing if he dies.

Ashlee Danielle and Sharell Williams
Ashlee Danielle and Sharell Williams.

“Queen Shea,” the section by Mona R Washington, is quirky comic relief. Kyla and Alicia, sisters, are frozen with inaction as they, like many, try to flee the Cracker insurrection but are tripped up by petty domestic complications like college schedules and packing hair products.

photos by Jonathan Slaff

August 10-20, 2023Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Ave.Presented by The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.Co-commissioned by Penn Live Arts at the University of Pennsylvania.Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 PM;matinees Saturdays at 2:00 PM & Sundays at 3:00 PM.Tickets: $30 gen. adm., $25 seniors & studentsRunning time: 2:15 incl. intermissionSubways: A, C, B, D to 145th Street.HSA is located near 141st Street on the north side of Saint James Presbyterian Church.

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Bernard Hicks August 20, 2023 at 3:56 pm

My wife and I went to the matinee show on August 19th, 2023. The production was phenomenal and the play was breathtaking. We attend a lot of plays on Broadway and off and we both feel this should be Broadway bound and a Tony award put on ice. The venue staff team were ultra-friendly, courteous and professional. We met the director, Karen Brown, who was very welcoming and shared her interesting back-story on the making of the play. The actors, what can I say, that superlatives like extraordinary, powerful, detailed, locked-in to the character doesn’t say. My wife and I were walking past the theatre on August 19th and were invited to come see the show by the actors who were outside on their break. We can’t thank Reginald, Joy Renee and Tatiana enough for extending the invitation. We are forever changed.


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