To celebrate Women’s History Month, The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) and Playbill are teaming up for ICONS: Harlem Renaissance in Motion, a series of audio plays produced by CTH and Venus Radio Theater. Launching on March 8, International Women’s Day, an audio play will release each day until March 12, highlighting five Black women who were central to the Harlem Renaissance.
For the collection of plays, CTH commissioned Harlem-based playwrights to create monologues performed by Harlem-based actors, honoring the largely unsung voices of fascinating figures, especially women, who were integral to the movement.
Written by Onyekachi Iwu and performed by Kara Young, Where Is Nina Mae? focuses on Nina Mae McKinney. Listen to the full audio play above.
McKinney was an actress who made her Broadway debut in Blackbirds of 1928, starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Adelaide Hall. It was her performance in the musical revue that led to her principal role in the 1929 film Hallelujah! from Oscar-honored director King Vidor. The film’s release launched McKinney’s screen-acting career, soon signing a five-year contract with MGM Studios. But during a time when multi-dimensional film roles for Black women weren't a priority for Hollywood, she moved to Europe where pursued a successful acting career, engaging with a few American film projects later on in her life.
Fayard Nicholas of the famous Nicholas Brothers duo said, “She could act, sing, dance, and wisecrack with the best of them, but she came along too early and there was no place for her.”
In Iwu’s play, audiences are transported to 1949, where “old Hollywood actress Nina Mae McKinney visits her former manager, Jimmy Monroe, in his rundown Harlem apartment. During her visit, McKinney descends into her own storm of joy, desire, and deep regret.”
ICONS was curated by CTH's Director of Literary Programs & Dramaturg Shawn René Graham and Mellon Foundation Playwright-in-Residence Betty Shamieh.
“The Harlem Renaissance was one of the most extraordinary and prolific periods in U.S. history,” says Graham. “Having these writers, who are living in the midst of a new Black art renaissance in theatre, film and television, revisit these less well-known figures is a testament to the contributions Black artists have made and how they have shaped our culture in the past, present, and future.”
Shamieh adds, “It has been wonderful to witness these writers pour their passion into giving voice to the incredible artists, activists, and intellectuals who shaped the Harlem Renaissance. These imaginative stories brought to life in ICONS illuminate their impact on our culture and our world.”
CTH provides theatrical productions and theatre-based educational and literary programs at little or no cost to underserved communities in Harlem and beyond. Since its founding in 1999, CTH has prioritized opportunity and access in the theatrical arts: onstage, backstage, in its administration, board, and audience. By leading with diversity, equity and inclusion as its core values, CTH attracts one of the most racially, generationally, and socio-economically diverse theatre audiences in New York City. Follow CTH on its website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Follow Venus Radio Theatre on its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.