HARLEM — In an age of resistance and Black Lives Matter, a local writer is looking to the past to unpack present-day issues.In an ode to civil rights icon Malcolm X and playwright Lorraine Hansberry — both of whom share a May 19 birthday and a Harlem connection — writer Shaun Neblett is unveiling a play based on the pair’s works on Friday.
The play “Happy Birthday Malcolm and Lorraine!” will feature sets of vignettes performed by several up-and-coming playwrights who will discuss contemporary topics, such as gentrification. Since the two subjects share the same birthday, Neblett wanted to fold their ideas and words in with the work of current writers, whose “journeys have been paved by Malcolm and Lorraine’s spirit and relentless drive to sharpen the black psyche,” he said. “Beyond creating a great show, we are sending their spirits our gratitude and keeping their important teachings alive,” he added.
In doing research for the play, Neblett said he discovered a letter at Harlem’s Schomburg Center that Hansberry wrote to her local newspaper when she was living in Greenwich Village, saying that “people were coming into her community and trying to take over.” “It really speaks to the gentrification that people are dealing with today in Harlem,” said Neblett, who founded the Changing Perceptions Theater. Another captivating draw for Neblett is the play’s location: the home of Langston Hughes, another historic Harlem figure.
The East 127th Street home was renovated and has been leased by a group of artists — called the I, Too Arts Collective — since last year to preserve Hughes’ legacy. “It’s just all a real sort of nucleus for this event and the meaning of it and the purpose,” Neblett explained. “They all fought in their own way to empower the black psyche.” Hansberry and Malcom X also have Harlem ties. He spent some of his most formidable years in the neighborhood, and she moved there in the 1950s, later writing “A Raisin in the Sun,” whose title was based on a poem by Hughes.
“They were both revolutionaries and they just went about the way they fought for liberation in different ways,” Neblett said, “but their ideas and thoughts were the same.”
“Happy Birthday Malcolm and Lorraine!” premieres Friday, May 19, at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door or online. The show will take place at the I, Too Arts Collective at the Langston Hughes House, 20 East 127th St.