Tristan André stars in the world premiere of They Do Not Know Harlem on the PlayMakers Repertory Company stage. Photo by HuthPhoto.
Tristan André is a visionary young artist who recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill’s MFA Professional Actor Training Program. It was there that he learned about solo performance work and began to craft his one-person show They Do Not Know Harlem, onstage now in its world premiere through PlayMakers Repertory Company.
The show is a unique blending of movement, song, and storytelling. And, in many ways, it’s also a blending of people. While Tristan is sometimes himself, or at least a version of himself, onstage, he also portrays legendary and ahead-of-his-time author James Arthur Baldwin. Often, the two characters meld together and overlap in intriguing ways. Baldwin’s experiences become Tristan’s and vice-versa, causing viewers to contemplate the power and impact of shared experiences and cultural identities across time. Simultaneously, they’re forced to confront the fact that, as a society, we haven’t come quite as far as we like to think we have.
Fast-paced and packed with effectual movement, the production is both mentally and visually stimulating at every turn. Kathryn Hunter-Williams’ strong direction and Joseph Amodei’s projection and video design combine to give this riveting story rich life, complete with projected images, videos, and soft ambient lighting effects, courtesy of Kathy A. Perkins, that always set the tone and mood perfectly. Additionally, scenic and costume designer Jan Chambers has outfitted the narrator in an amalgamated wardrobe that brings together both characters while also blending fashions of the past and present.
Speaking of the past and present, both are explored in depth throughout the piece. After all, as André’s script reminds us, “one must remember their genesis,” and the artist proceeds to do exactly that. In fact, he gives value to every character-building voice, both affirming and non-affirming, in his life and in the life of Baldwin. He considers their weight, builds connections between memories and experience, and bravely searches for truth and meaning, all while bringing a legend to life.
Through André, two visionaries meet in one man, giving new definition and thought-provoking insight into what it means to be a “father.” André is the father of this piece, while Baldwin, in his own way, is as well. Baldwin, through his art and its impact, could also be considered a sort of substitute father to André, and there are small windows into André’s own relationship with his actual birth father. Plus, the idea of art and culture as controlling and ultimately inescapable patriarchal figures is explored as well.
As this thought-provoking, self-exploring production plays out, it’s enhanced and enriched by gorgeous, haunting music from the ever-present onstage band. While Alan Thompson creates sweet sounds with the keyboard and sax, Christian Sharp is in charge of bass, and Brandon L. Mitchell commands the drums. Dottie DL Zene brings it all together with her soulful, unforgettable voice, which rings with the type of power, truth, and connection this show demands.
Innovative, thoughtful, and worthy of being viewed multiple times, They Do Not Know Harlem is a heavy and engaging piece with just the right touches of humor and lightness sprinkled throughout. It will make you feel like you’ve gone to the most hard-hitting kind of church service and walked away with the best gift of all: a new sense of enlightenment. Luckily, performances continue through March 12th. See it here while you can because this is one production that’s going places.
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