Harlem School Of The Arts Where Black Art Is Celebrated And Where Young Artists Of Color Are Groomed

July 5, 2022

During a recent two-week period, the nationally recognized Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) held a series of performances, unveiled a student art exhibit and celebrated the 2nd annual HSA A-Train Arts Festival.

The feeling that Dorothy Maynor, HSA’s founder, was smiling down on the students, staff and faculty who set the bar high and demonstrated their passion, love, and ethical commitment to the organization’s rigorous multi-disciplinary training, permeated the building.

Before the official end of classes and before the start of HSA’s 2022 Summer Camp, the chair of the theater department, Mr. Chesney Snow directed his troupe of young thespians in an open-air performance of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” with one of the most adorable casts, ranging in ages from 6-15. 

It was billed as a workshop performance but had the hallmarks of a Shakespeare in the Park production.

Staged in the building’s famed back garden courtyard with its active waterfall as a backdrop; from the youngest to the oldest members of the cast—they brought their “A” game.

For parents, community members, visitors, students, and staff of HSA, the excitement did not stop with the theater department’s workshop. That was just the beginning. 

Inside the House that Dorothy Maynor built, AK Lovelace, chair of the organization’s Media and Design Department beamed with pride at the unveiling of a three-room exhibition of his students’ artwork. The exhibition titled, “Black and Blue” featured the work of former HSA student, Asha Bell, a now-celebrated artist who “recontextualizes Black life by challenging the typical and common depictions of Black people.” 

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She fuses past and present through the use of wood sculptures that tie “ancestral knowledge” with everyday cultural objects.  She captures Black life in nuanced groupings of postcard-sized photographs. 

The exhibition also included a range of student artwork highlighting their unique storytelling abilities. From Manga to Claymation, to the production of HSA’s first Podcast project, it all echoed Ms. Maynor’s words, written in 1968, that spoke of the transformative power of the arts on boys and girls in the Harlem community that – “…just by learning to concentrate on mastering an instrument, or in the blending of colors, or in the careful use of the English language that our drama teacher insists on – in some way this child may be taught that dreams are quite real…that child will one day look in the mirror and see something that he (she) never saw before—the makings of a real human being.”

The annual HSA A-Train Arts Festival, a culminating event before the start of summer, hosted performances by a mix of students, alumni of the organization’s programs, faculty, and guest artists.

Now in its second year, the festival was as much a celebration of the importance of the arts in the lives and development of children — their motor and intellectual skills, as it was a recognition of HSA’s leadership role in providing world-class training, and exposure to the arts for young people (from toddlers to adults), their families and the community.

Some of the highlights of the four-day event included a breathtaking performance by multi-Grammy nominated violinist Curtis Stewart, a former HSA student, whose recently deceased mother, once taught at the school. 

His performance included visual elements and sound overlays that made for an almost hypnotic affect.  His loss, his pain, and his memories, in tribute to his mother, were all captured in the music and the poetry of spoken word and songs he performed.

Acclaimed pianist/composer/educator, Jeremy Jordan, a member of HSA’s faculty, performed with his band during the Arts Festival. 

A Juilliard graduate, his virtuosity was undeniable, as he performed a series of classic jazz tunes as well as some his own compositions which are available for purchase, with proceeds going to benefit Flint’s Water Crisis.

Taking her turn at the mic, Ms. Yolanda Wyns, Chair of the Music Department a former backup singer (Freddie Jackson, Stephanie Mills, Patti Austin), and Broadway star (The Color Purple), took the audience to church with a repertoire of Gospel songs. 

Dressed in a pink floral dress with matching, specially designed headwear, she dazzled and moved the audience to its feet with her soulful interpretations of beloved hymns.

Then, it was HSA’s superb Dance Ensemble’s turn to shine. Under the direction of Mr. Leyland Simmons, Chair of the Dance department, members of HSA’s 2022 Dance Ensemble and Prep-program, showed up and showed off. 

And what a wonderful demonstration of power, skill, and beauty they exhibited. Kendall McDowell, a graduating High School student and member of the Prep program performed her own dramatic choreography to the music of Nina Simone (Ne Me Quitte Pas); Malachi Kingston also choreographed his piece, to the music of Tony Anderson.

The entire dance ensemble rose to the occasion, each contributing their own choreographed work, or performing choreography by a team of the most inspiring teaching artists among them Mr. Leyland Simmons, Ron Belger, and Jude Evans, to name a few.

The dance ensemble 2022 performed 13 different dance pieces bringing the audience of parents and community residents to their feet.   

The Festival concluded on a memorable note, with the premiere performance of original work, penned by music master, pianist and composer – Adegoke Steve Colson (Ade), specifically in honor of this outstanding institution, its founder Dorothy Maynor, and the legacy of her vision and mission. 

Before the introduction of “Suite Harlem” at the HSA Theater, Mr. Colson took time to remind the packed audience, of the historical importance of this nationally recognized institution. 

He spoke of the fragility of organizations like HSA, and encouraged them to help preserve the contributions of elders like Ms. Maynor.

The composition and Mr. Colson’s partnership with HSA were made possible through a grant he received from Jazz Road Creative Residencies, which is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation with additional support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  

“Suite Harlem” was arranged in six movements (Searching Harlem, Harlem Streets, Our Beautiful Children, The True Bridge, Resilience, and A Gift, A Legacy), and paid tribute to Harlem’s rich cultural past, present and future, while honoring Ms. Maynor’s clarity of vision, her philanthropic mission, and her legacy.

Mr. Colson, a New Jersey native, born in Newark, and raised in East Orange, has been a quiet, yet stalwart musical force, whose compositions have been compared to jazz and classical music masters like Monk, Ellington, and even Stravinsky. 

For this premiere performance of Suite Harlem, he gathered a rare collective of intrepid musicians led by himself on piano, with trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, bass clarinetist J.D. Parran, violinist Marlene Rice, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, and featuring the incomparable Iqua Colson on vocals. 

Joining them in the third movement (Our Beautiful Children), were HSA dancers Kendall McDowell and Jenelle Henry. 

It was the perfect way to conclude an extraordinary season and celebrate Mr. Colson’s time as Artist in Residence at HSA.  

For more on the organization visit, www.hsanyc.org.

Photo credit: 1) Student art. 2) (L-R) Lee Hogans (HSA Chief Ed. Off.), Yolanda Wyns (Chair of Music) Adegoke Steve Colson Freddie Hendrix, Iqua Colson, Marlene Rice, J.D. Parran, Bryan Carrott, Luke Stewart and (lower center) Pheeroan akLaff. By Sam Mattingly.

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