Of Ebony Embers,
with the Core Ensemble
Lyte Auditorium,
Millersville University, PA
(4 February 2001)

There was no smoldering in Millersville University's Lyte Auditorium for this Sunday evening performance -- it was a full-fledged conflagration.

Of Ebony Embers is a one-actor, three-musician touring show celebrating the music and poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. For 90 minutes, actor Akin Babatunde lived and breathed for some of the greatest names of that era, and it was hard not to be scorched by his fiery passion for their work.

The touring production, which stopped in Millersville for one night only, featured Babatunde embodying the Harlem Renaissance as four of its brightest stars: artist Aaron Douglas and poets Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

Backing him up all the way was the Core Ensemble: Tahirah Whittington on cello, Hugh Hinton on piano and Michael Parola on percussion. The trio reprised the role of a Harlem jazz band, soaring through a broad array of musical styles from those heady days before the Depression reigned in America and Harlem was widely known as a fountain of music, poetry and art.

The hope, said Babatunde in the role of Douglas, was that "our poetry, our art, our music would transcend the boundaries of race and culture." It was hard to imagine being an artist, he confessed, when African Americans of the day "were expected to be maids or porters or servants."

The play is set in January 1935 at Douglas' home, where he is throwing a memorial party for writers Wallace Thurman and Rudolf Fisher, who died in late December of the preceding year. Douglas has hired the ensemble to provide music at what he hopes will be a celebration of Harlem culture and a coda to the Harlem Renaissance, which had run its course during the previous two decades.

Shifting from character to character, Babatunde made each role distinctive in speech, mood and mannerism. Each recited tidbits of poetry, history of Harlem culture and remembrances of its luminary figures.

Douglas is respectful and mild, watching the Harlem streets from his window and reveling in its colorful life. He is somber and reflective at a memorial party no one attended, but still lively enough to drop a bit of scat during Bud Powell's "Dusk in Sandy" for solo piano.

McKay is cantankerous, disruptive and proud, paying respects in his own way. "I am not angry," he declares angrily in one scene. "Just a warrior for justice" for whom words are his weapons.

Cullen is more chipper and gregarious, nursing a bit of hidden anger even as he turns a poem into song and dance. "I have never been a Negro poet," he loudly proclaims. "I am a poet who is a Negro."

The most moving portion of the show was Babatune's scene as Hughes, passing time in a Mexican cemetery where he is stranded after settling his father's estate. Hughes, speaking to a nonexistent grave, struggles to come to terms with his father's distance in life, his lack of support and faith for his son's art. Justifying his choices in life, he gives an impassioned defense against doubt and expectation.

The musicians interact only minimally with the actor, paying heed to his words and reacting through gestures and facial expressions but almost never speaking. Rather, they busy themselves with the music, filling the auditorium with styles and arrangements unfamiliar to many of the folks in the audience.

The music is at times slow, sweet and gorgeous, at others fast, percussive, even harsh.

The production Sunday began with Jeffrey Mumford's "Within a Window of Resonant Light," a tune at times discordant and certainly an attention-grabber. As the evening progressed, the ensemble featured music such as "Epistrophy" by Thelonius Monk, Alvin Singleton's "Arguru VI" for solo marimba, Billy Strayhorn's "Daydream" and George Walker's sweeping "Cello Sonata."

Margaret Bonds' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" for solo cello provided an exquisite backdrop to Douglas's eulogy for his newly buried friends and peers. Mumford's "Blythe" supplied a frantic introduction for McKay. "Diane" by Charles Mingus, leading with piano and snare brushes, evoked a ballroom scene, while Duke Ellington's "Demitasse" created a carnival atmosphere. Ellington's "Awful Sad" was cheerily morose, and Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp" was an infectious toe-tapper.

Of Ebony Embers is as much of a concert as it is a play, as much a recital as it is a full-scale production. Anyone with an interest in the Harlem Renaissance -- and, more importantly, anyone without an inkling what it was about -- should try to catch this show on tour. Keep your eyes open, particularly on college campuses, where it's getting most of its bookings.

[ by Tom Knapp ]