Though flawed, Sugar Hill succeeds in showing Harlem Renaissance
Written by Amy Ansara
and Robert C. Johnson Jr.
Directed by William Electric Black.
Starring Lance Reddick
and Valerie A. Stephens.
Continues through April 7 at
The New Ehrlich Theater, 8 pm.
By DAVID HOGG
and ROBIN KULLBERG
SUGAR HILL IS A PLAY about a whites-only jazz club in Harlem in the 1920s. As the press release states, it "explores the clash between black artists and white patrons." Although we were worried that the play would present a pre-digested message, we found it thought-provoking and entertaining.
Almost all of the action in Sugar Hill takes place in Easy Sam's, a Harlem night club owned by John Fordham (Peter Bubriski). Fordham is a bored white entrepreneur who is drawn to Harlem by its sensuality and exotic image. The plot (or at least its better parts) revolves around Fordham meeting and becoming the patron of Desmond Saint James (Lance Reddick), a young Jamaican writer. As Saint James is drawn into a relationship with Fordham, he alienates himself from Hazel (Valerie A. Stephens) -- a Marcus Garvey follower and activist -- who thinks he is selling out.
There are serious weaknesses in the script. The plot is yet another re-hash of the dramatic formula we all learned in high school. It is predictable. Fordham is the racist we expect him to be, and when Saint James sees the sinister nature of his patron, he breaks off the relationship. Furthermore, playwrights Amy Ansara and Robert C. Johnson Jr. waste several promising characters. For example, it seemed that Hyacinth's (Robin Scott Manna) only function was to act as a device that served to emphasize Fordham's callousness.
Despite the flaws in the script, the play was quite good. Redding and Stephens were both excellent. Redding was convincing as an artist caught in the conflict between funding and freedom, and Stephens played Hazel with cynicism and humor. She was definitely the favorite of the audience.
We would liked to have seen Manna in a more substantial role. She performed two amazing blues numbers, demonstrating her ability as a singer and an actor.
The entire production deserves a lot of credit for bringing us a viewpoint rarely seen on the stage. The Harlem Renaissance is often seen as an unqualified good in the advancement of black artists. However, the clear racial polarization in the Harlem club scene was very damaging to the artists and their work.
Although improvements could have been made to the script, Sugar Hill is entertaining and it succeeds in bringing up interesting issues. We highly recommend it.