February 19 & 20, 7:30pm
150 Convent Avenue
at West 135th Street
Harlem Stage is presenting the world premiere of Stranger on Earth, from OBIE-winning playwright and interdisciplinary performing artist Carl Hancock Rux. The production, which anchors Harlem Stage’s The Year of James Baldwin centenary celebration and exemplifies the institution’s commitment to honoring artists of color—past, present and future—imagines a chance meeting between James Baldwin and Dinah Washington, two of the era’s most iconic African Americans, at a Harlem jazz lounge in 1963. Commissioned and produced by Harlem Stage, Rux draws from Baldwin’s landmark essays to create a work that addresses race, identity and the future of a world that both Baldwin and Washington struggled to understand and inhabit. Rux performs Stranger on Earth with vocalist Marcelle Davies Lashley, who interprets Washington’s songs, against the backdrop of an arresting video montage by Onome Ekeh.
Stranger on Earth takes audiences back to 1963, a year of turbulence punctuated by violence in Birmingham, Alabama; the assassination of NAACP stalwart Medgar Evers by Klan members; the murder of four little black girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing; and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was the year James Baldwin earned his reputation as a trenchant thinker on the topic of American race relations, a polemicist for the complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of blacks during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and an outspoken advocate for gay men long before the espousal of queer equality in America. It was also the year Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues and Juke Boxes, married her seventh husband; prepared to write her memoirs; anticipated the 1964 release of A Stranger On Earth, which she thought would be her biggest hit record to date; and died from an accidental overdose of brandy, barbiturates and sleeping pills at the age of thirty-nine. Directed by Yen Moon, Stranger on Earth conjures this period, and the towering lives of Baldwin and Washington, with a mixture of Baldwin’s writings (including portions of the essays Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time); original text by Rux; memorable performances of Washington’s songs by Davies Lashley, Ted Cruz (piano), Jason DiMatteo (bass); and a video montage, created by Onome Ekeh, including historic images of Baldwin, Washington, and the times. After seeing a workshop presentation of the work, playwright Ifa Bayeza wrote, “The cross currents of expression, the warp and weft of spoken word and song, intellect and heart, instrument and voice, text and sound, lyrics and prose, man and woman, exile and prodigal bound are wound together so seamlessly, it is an evocation of ancient spirits transporting us for a moment to the lost empire of a mythological place that perhaps once was real, a time when we were comfortable with ourselves, our contradictions and complexity, when dissonance was part of the chord. Rux conjures Baldwin’s dry-eyed soul, his characteristic measured insouciance empowering the past to breathe its silent fury into our lungs.”
Harlem Stage conceived The Year of James Baldwin, of which Stranger on Earth is a cornerstone, as a 14-month, citywide celebration of one of America’s most acerbic thinkers. Harlem Stage is presenting work by some of the most gifted artists working today to further Baldwin’s legacy. The initiative kicked off April 26, 2014, when Rux and company performed a preview of Stranger on Earth at New York Live Arts as part of the Live Ideas Festival. The celebration also includes this year’s edition of Harlem Stage’s acclaimed dance series E-Moves (April 10-18, 2015), for which four exceptional choreographers are creating works inspired by the words and ideas of Baldwin and the soulful songs of Billie Holiday; and James Baldwin and Rethinking the Path Ahead (May 13, 2015), a discussion, co-presented with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, featuring Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center, and Dr. Fredrick Harris, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University.