Invigorating Culture in Harlem

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The New York Sun

The executive director of Harlem Stage, Patricia Cruz, can get very worked up about granite — particularly if it’s the granite in the walls of the Gatehouse, the hundred-year-old former municipal water pumping station at Convent Avenue and 135th Street that will open as Harlem Stage’s new theater next month. While giving a visitor a tour of the building, she reached out to touch a surface of sheared stone. “Do you see that?” she asked. “All of that we get to keep. To me, that’s holy.”

The granite, and Ms. Cruz’s reverence for it, could be seen as a symbol of what Ms. Cruz hopes her theater can be for a community that is rapidly changing, with townhouses selling for millions of dollars and new buildings being erected by internationally renowned architects like Rafael Viñoly. On Thursday evening, Harlem Stage is sponsoring a public panel discussion in the new theater on the role of the arts in Harlem. The choreographer Bill T. Jones; the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the Rev. Calvin Butts III; and the architect Max Bond will engage in a conversation moderated by Leonard Lopate.

“Things are changing,” Ms. Cruz said, “but how do we make it so that it’s positive for the community — that they are not among the displaced? We hope to be a stabilizing force.”

Harlem Stage, formerly known as Aaron Davis Hall, has been presenting theater, dance, music, and literary events for more than 25 years, but this is the first time the organization will have a home of its own. (Its previous location was in Aaron Davis Hall, a City College facility just across the street from the Gatehouse.) Ms. Cruz, formerly an actress and then a deputy director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, took the reins at Aaron Davis Hall in 1998. The renovation of the building, a grand Romanesque Revival construction from 1891, took three years and cost around $21 million, $18 million of which was provided by the city. The other $3 million came from private donors.

Under Ms. Cruz’s leadership, Harlem Stage is highly respected for presenting the work of leading African-American and Latino artists, such as Mr. Jones and the poet Sekou Sendiata, and for fostering a close connection with the community.

“The best arts organizations are the ones that are simultaneously completely committed to the aesthetic adventure of it all and to the community in which they are working,” the director of the Columbia Arts Initiative, and a former artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, Gregory Mosher, said. “And it’s so clearly a part of what Pat is about: to make sure that both those strands of her enterprise are alive.”

While she cares about connecting with her audience, Ms. Cruz can hardly be accused of pandering to it. The schedule for the first fall season at the Gatehouse includes four new commissions: Roger Guenveur Smith’s “Who Killed Bob Marley?,” an experimental work of theater and film with site-appropriate themes of water and drowning; Sekou Sundiata’s “Days of Art and Ideas”; a piece of chamber music by the composer Tania León, and a new work by Mr. Jones.

Ms. Cruz is a firm believer that anyone can appreciate and enjoy the complexity of serious and cutting-edge art. The four artists in this fall’s series have all been in artistic residency at the company for two years, doing workshops and talkbacks with audiences about their process. “One of the positions we have taken is that the performing arts are essentially a vehicle to communicate ideas,” Ms. Cruz said. “And if one really wants to get inside the development of a piece, it’s important to understand what the mode of communication is.”

She recalled a particularly successful talkback in which Ms. León explained how she incorporated music from her childhood in Cuba into the European compositional tradition. The audience experienced “this incredible revelation” about the music, Ms. Cruz said, reaffirming her belief that great art is not for the few, but for the many.

“I think one of the things we’ve suffered from as a society is this dumbingdown: ‘Oh, you must only like this,’ or ‘Your experience is this,’ ” she said. But in the past, people like Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker ––people who did really complex work ––were considered popular. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh that’s over there, we won’t understand it, or we won’t have fun listening to it.’ People enjoyed it, people danced to it. I’m a bit of a proselytizer for this notion that culture is invigorating and rewarding, and the more complex the better. Bring it on.”

The city, and particularly the Department of Cultural Affairs, was extremely supportive during the renovation process, Ms. Cruz said. Ms. Cruz is proud of how much the company has listened to the community and responded to its interests. Although the asphalt lot next to the theater was on a separate property, she led the way for the community to turn it into a baseball field and track for the local schoolchildren and Little League team.

As for the Gatehouse, Ms. Cruz left as much of the original elements — the granite walls, proscenium-like Romanesque arch in the theater — as possible.”When this building was built in the 1890s, the idea was that that the public would be able to see this incredibly technology of clean water flowing down into New York City,” she said. She believes the grandeur of the space will tangibly add to the audience’s experience of the work presented. “That grandness gives the public or the individual as a citizen the opportunity to feel their own elevation. Frequently we become diminished in cities; we begin to think of ourselves as small or insignificant. What I want to happen in this space is this sense of the highest aspect of our humanity.”

The New York Sun

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