An ode to Harlem developed in Philly

The Negro Ensemble Company, of New York, came to Penn Live Arts in West Philadelphia to develop its new play about gentrification.

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A man embraces a woman from behind as they gaze into the distance.

Alton Ray and Kenya Wilson portray a young couple starting a family in Harlem in "Mecca is Burning." (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Mecca is Burning,” by the Negro Ensemble Company of New York and presented by Penn Live Arts on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, is a dramatization of the love, anger, and sorrow surrounding the gentrification of Harlem, told through four different, interlocking stories.

It opens with a character lamenting the cultural loss of his childhood neighborhood.

“It’s not just legacy and history: It is our legacy. Harlem is our Mecca,” said actor Ben Rowe in the opening monologue. “It’s where politicians stood up and spoke up for our rights. It’s where artists were true to the times because it was on everybody’s mind.”

A man onstage gestures with his hands as he speaks.
Benjamin Rowe’s opening monologue sets the stage for “Mecca is Burning,” which tells the stories of four Harlem families. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Harlem was once considered the Mecca for African Americans,” said playwright Cris Eli Blak. “It was where you could come and be an artist. You could come and be a professional. It was really this safe haven, this urban holy land for African Americans at one time.”

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“But if you look at Harlem now, it’s a completely different place,” he said.

Cris Eli Blak poses for a photo in a theater lobby.
This is Cris Eli Blak, one of four playwrights of the Negro Ensemble Company’s “Mecca is Burning,” at Penn Live Arts. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY News)

As the neighborhood continues its decades-long trend of gentrification, Blak says Harlem is moving further and further away from its roots as a cauldron of Black culture.

“It’s gotten to the point where the people who built it, the people who considered it that sacred land, can no longer afford it and are being pushed out,” he said.

Blak is one of four playwrights contributing to “Mecca is Burning,” each penning a different story about one of four families living in four apartments in a Harlem building. Each story is independent of the others, until a catastrophic event connects them all.

Karen Brown, the artistic director of NEC and director of this play, doesn’t want to spoil the plot.

“It is a situation that endangers them,” she said when asked to explain. “How about that?”

A woman dances on a table onstage during a production of "Mecca is Burning."
Imana Breaux dances on a table, personifying a Harlem reminiscence in “Mecca is Burning.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Negro Ensemble Company is a legacy Black theater company in the United States, founded in New York City in 1967 in the midst of the Black Arts Movement, with a mission to develop and nurture new Black voices in American theater, including August Wilson and Charles Fuller. NEC won a Pulitzer Prize for its premiere production of Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” in 1981.

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It was around the same time and with similar impetus the Freedom Theater (now the New Freedom Theater) was founded in Philadelphia in 1966.

Last year, the NEC was invited by Penn Live Arts to develop “Mecca is Burning” while in residence on the Penn campus. Last fall the company presented an evening of one-act plays at the Annenberg, and worked with professors on campus to hold theater workshops for students.

The residency is part of Penn Live Arts 50th anniversary season. Christopher Gruits, the artistic director of Penn Live Arts, brought in NEC to deepen the organization’s commitment to artists of color, which he said is one of the planks of the organization’s founding.

“So much of what we try to do through these programs is generate dialogue and understanding,” Gruits said. “When you come into a theater, you’re in kind of a third space. You’re not at work, you’re not at home. You’re hopefully pretty open-minded and able to receive messages or stories that help you understand a different community.”

“For marginalized communities, that platform, that opportunity to tell a story so that a very diverse range of people in attendance can understand their perspective is super, super valuable,” he said.

The play came together fairly quickly as the writers sent in their stories over the last couple months and the company shaped them together into a cohesive script.

Blak admits he was the last to turn in his copy.

“There are kids who do their homework on Friday night, and there are kids who do their homework Monday on the bus,” he said. “I definitely did mine Monday on the bus.”

Part of the residency at Penn Live Arts was a guarantee that the play, however it came out, would be staged at the Annenberg Center, which lit a fire under the company.

“That’s a huge motivator and a huge push,” Blak said. “Usually when you write a show, you sit down, you write it, and you kind of just hope that it goes someplace. But we knew where it was going.”

The accelerated timeline of the production allows the story to pick up topical issues that are part of the immediate national conversation around race, including arguments surrounding critical race theory and the erosion of voting rights.

A man on stage points towards something in the distance.
Benjamin Rowe’s opening monologue sets the stage for “Mecca is Burning,” which tells the stories of four Harlem families. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“They are attempting to take slavery out of the history books. It never happened. The civil rights. It never happened. Voting rights, things limiting the power of a bloc of African Americans because it becomes a powerful voting bloc,” Brown said. “Whatever limited steps have been gained, the erosion of those steps amounts to a disenfranchisement of African Americans.”

For Blak, those issues give the play its crucial energy.

“Theater, in my opinion, should be inherently political,” he said. “Not necessarily political as in this side or that side, but political in the sense of this is what’s going on outside these doors. Movies do a great job of letting us escape. Theater, at its best, makes us sit down and watch a reflection of ourselves.”

“Mecca is Burning” will be performed at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through Saturday. Brown said she is close to booking the play in a New York venue, likely later this spring.

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