At an institute run by Anna Deavere Smith in Cambridge, MA, this past summer, theater critic and columnist Margo Jefferson developed a short performance piece with Francesca Harper, former principal dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet, a cast-member of Fosse, and Jefferson's niece. The piece, titled 50 Minutes With Harriet and Phillis, enjoyed a work-in-progress mounting of six performances, Feb. 15-24, at Off Broadway's Cherry Lane Alternative space, as part of The Cherry Lane Theatre Project series.
Now the Cherry Lane is developing another, unrelated Jefferson piece with a similar title, 60 Minutes in Negroland. That work, a solo, caps the last of three consecutive Monday night performances at the Cherry Lane, Oct. 8, according to company spokespersons at the Springer/Chicoine office. 60 Minutes in Negroland, which began Sept. 24, is co directed by prolific playwright Eduardo Machado (the upcoming Havana is Waiting) and actress Tatyana Yassukovich.
Unlike the dance-oriented collage of words and music that was 50 Minutes, 60 Minutes will be a more autobiographical at Jefferson's life as a black woman, born to a comfortably well-off pediatrician and moving in the upper class circles that her writing career (and Pulitzer) have carved out for her.
Jefferson, who has been contributing critiques and theatre-opinion pieces to the New York Times for several years, was chosen as the paper’s Sunday theatre columnist to replace Vincent Canby, who died at age 76 on Oct. 15, 2000. Jefferson told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 18) she would write one Sunday column per month, while continuing as critic at large and contributing her bi-weekly piece to the second page of the Times' culture section. Jefferson, an African-American woman, first started writing for the paper the same year Canby became its Sunday critic, 1993. At the time, the theatre section had a seemingly homogenous, white male “voice.” (Since then, Anita Gates was added as one of the third-string critics). Her theatre criticism and book reviews earned Jefferson a 1995 Pulitzer.
Also, she's a Brandeis (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.S.) alumnus and has taught journalism at New York University. Not shy about tackling potentially controversial subject matter, Jefferson’s essays have weighed in on such topics as ebonics, “race ennui” and black feminism. She received an Alumni Achievement Award from Brandeis in 1995. For tickets ($10) and information on 60 Minutes in Negroland at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., call (212) 727-3673. There are talkbacks with the writer following all three performances, which will likely lead to revisions of the show week-to-week.
— By David Lefkowitz