For an hour, Kresge Recital Hall’s stage became an upscale apartment in Depression-era Harlem, a tenement and a Mexican graveyard during the scenes of “Of Ebony and Embers.”
“Of Ebony and Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance” is a fusion of jazz music and monologues that gives a snapshot of a night for four artists after the African American art revolution was past its peak.
Actor Chris White played every character. Throughout the play he became artist Aaron Douglas, writer Claude McKay and poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. The scenes were bridged and underscored by jazz pieces played by a jazz trio consisting of Tahirah Whittington (cello), Hsia-Ling Lin (piano) and Michel Parola (percussion).
Audience members Joel Ward and Laurie Sauer, a Knox college librarian, enjoyed the performance because they loved the poetry, the period and the music that formed the program’s backbone.
“You don’t get to see this very often in Galesburg,” a smiling Ward said.
Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (ABLE) heard about the play concert when Core Ensemble, the production group, contacted them. After watching the video, ABLE decided that they wanted to bring the production to campus, and they were happy with the results.
“For the people that were here, it was great,” ABLE president and senior Jordan Lanfair said.
The play centered around White, as Aaron Douglas, waiting for his guests to come to a dinner party being held in honor of two Harlem Renaissance icons (Wallace Thurman and Rudolf Fisher) who had just died. It then shifted between the three other characters who each had their own reason not to attend White’s dinner.
Lanfair described White as “electric,” and no one who was in the audience could deny that the performance was bombastic. Occasionally, White’s enthusiastic style reminded the viewer that he was acting and broke the play’s illusion.
Also interrupting the flow of the play were the sound levels. Throughout the play White’s dialogue was beautifully underscored by jazz selections, but the combined sound level of the three instruments at times made it difficult for listeners to pick out White’s voice.
At times the writing also weighed down the performance. Although most of the time the facts used to back up the story were informative, at times the play’s obsession with fitting facts in felt unnatural. At those moments the performance felt less like a fusion of plot and time and more like a history lecture set to music.
Despite these flaws, the overall performance was good. By and large, White was equal to the task. The musicians played beautifully, and the audience left a little more educated than they were before.