American Negro Theatre

Scene from the American Negro Theatre production of  "On Strivers Row," 1946, with Harry Belafonte Photographs and Prints Division  Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Scene from the American Negro Theatre production of “On Strivers Row,” 1946, with Harry Belafonte – Photographs and Prints Division Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The American Negro Theatre (ANT), co-founded in 1940 by Frederick O’Neal and Abram Hill, was established to provide black actors, playwrights, directors and other theater professionals with the opportunity to work in productions that illustrated the diversity of black life.

From 1940-1949, the ANT produced 19 plays, 12 of them original. Their productions often appealed specifically to the Harlem community. On Striver’s Row, Walk Hard–Talk Loud, and Rain were all well-received. The ANT found commercial success with Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta, adapted for a black cast. This production traveled to Broadway, then went on to Chicago and London. The ANT also exhibited the talents of several now well-known actors and actresses, some for the first time. Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Hilda Simms and Alvin and Alice Childress all performed with the ANT.
Program from the production of  "On Strivers Row" Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Program from the production of
“On Strivers Row”
Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

For its first five years, the ANT was housed in the basement of the Schomburg Center, then the 135th Street Branch Library. The space was known as the “Harlem Library Little Theatre.” In 1945, ANT moved to the Elks Lodge on 126th Street, which was renamed the American Negro Theatre Playhouse. Finally in 1950, the ANT moved to a loft on West 125th Street, and unfortunately went out of business a year later.

Two divisions of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture have holdings related to the American Negro Theatre. The Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division has the personal papers of Frederick O’Neal, Hilda Simms and Hilda Haynes, the ANT Scrapbook and the ANT Alumni Collection. The Photographs and Prints Division has production stills and publicity photographs from the ANT. Today, the room and stage that housed the ANT still exists in the basement of the Schomburg Center. It is now a 75 seat multi-purpose room named in honor of the theatre company.

Click here to learn more about the Schomburg Center’s Black History Month programs and events.


The boy Harry from Harlem did good

To most younger people who remember him, Harry Belafonte is mainly known for singing infectious but vaguely annoying 1950s Afro-Caribbean pop songs like Day-O.

Indeed, anyone under 30 may not know who he is at all.

If so, this expansive and entertaining, if sometimes hagiographic, documentary from Susanne Rostock will definitely set them straight.

And if Rostock’s film is a little fawning now and then, it’s hard to blame her, because Belafonte’s has been a truly extraordinary life.

Born in extreme poverty in a Harlem tenement in 1927, Harold George Bellanfanti Jr was the child of a Caribbean housekeeper, and was partly raised in Jamaica by his grandfather.

After finishing high school in Harlem, he served in the US Navy during World War II and returned to New York. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when a tenant gave him tickets to a show at Harlem’s American Negro Theater.

The theatre’s resident company used plays to give a voice to the black American experience, and the young Belafonte was entranced.

He met Sidney Poitier and began acting, but also experimented with singing and developed a keen interest in folk songs, both American and Jamaican. In 1956 Belafonte had a big hit with Caribbean folk song Matilda, and his debut album Calypso became the first LP to sell over a million copies.

He became an overnight sensation, and audiences went wild for his sensual live performances, but Harry was no mere pop star.

Inspired by the fearless campaigning of black singer Paul Robeson, Belafonte became increasingly exercised by the fate of black Americans, and would be a key player in the Civil Rights movement.

It’s this period of Belafonte’s life that Rostock’s film spends most time exploring, and understandably so, because the singer’s contribution to that cause cannot be overstated.

He bailed Martin Luther King out of Birmingham City Jail; supported the preacher’s family; financed the Freedom Riders; courted the Kennedys; and helped organise the iconic March on Washington in 1963.

Belafonte also rallied Hollywood chums like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston to put their names to the Civil Rights movement, and the singer also put his own career, and even his life, at risk.

His energy and commitment is remarkable, and his engagement against injustice has continued; he’s campaigned against apartheid, famine in Africa, and the American engagement in Iraq.

Admirable stuff, and at 85 he’s still going strong.

But Rostock’s film is too respectful to provide genuine insight; the recollections of Belafonte, Poitier and others about the ’60s are fascinating, but Belafonte’s personal life is only nodded to respectfully, and no hard questions are asked.

Why, for instance, has he been so consistently ambivalent about the presidency of Barack Obama?

– Paul Whitington

HBO’s ‘Sing Your Song’ to Debut 10/17 – Harry Belafonte


During the course of an inspiring life that has paralleled the American civil rights movement, artist and crusader Harry Belafonte has tirelessly used his humanitarian influence to advance causes of social justice, while forging a unique career punctuated by prestigious awards and industry firsts.

Filmmaker Susanne Rostock tells the rich life story of this remarkable artist and humanitarian in the intimate feature-length documentary SING YOUR SONG, debuting MONDAY, OCT. 17 (10:00-11:45 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Other HBO playdates: Oct. 20 (4:00 p.m., 1:00 a.m.), 23 (3:45 p.m.), 26 (11:30 a.m.) and 29 (8:45 a.m.), and Nov. 1 (12:30 p.m., 12:45 a.m.) and 7 (5:30 p.m.)

HBO2 playdates: Oct. 22 (6:00 a.m.), 26 (8:00 p.m.) and 30 (10:30 p.m.), and Nov. 5 (5:15 p.m.), 9 (11:00 a.m., 2:10 a.m.) and 15 (5:30 p.m.)

Coinciding with the HBO debut of SING YOUR SONG, Belafonte’s memoir, “My Song,” will be published by Knopf Oct. 11 while a companion music album, entitled “Sing Your Song: The Music,” was released by Sony Masterworks Oct. 4.

Groundbreaking singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte rose to fame in the U.S. in spite of segregation, and crossed over into mainstream America on his way to international stardom. His hit 1956 album “Calypso” made him the first artist in industry history to sell over a million LPs, and spawned the smash single “Banana Boat (Day-O).” Though recognized with Grammy, Tony and Emmy(R) awards, Belafonte was blacklisted, harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), spied on by the CIA and FBI, and threatened by the Klan, state troopers and Las Vegas mafia bosses.

Distilled from more than 700 hours of interviews, eyewitness accounts, movie clips, excerpts from FBI files, and news and rare archival film footage and stills, some of which has never been seen before, SING YOUR SONG reveals Belafonte as a tenacious hands-on activist who worked intimately with DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., mobilized celebrities for social justice, participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and took action to counter gang violence, prisons and the incarceration of youth.

In addition to Belafonte, those interviewed in SING YOUR SONG include: Tony Bennett, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Coretta Scott King, Rep. John Lewis, Miriam Makeba, Nelson Mandela, Sidney Poitier, George Schlatter, Tom Smothers, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Andrew Young, as well as his children Adrienne Belafonte Biesemeyer, David Belafonte, Gina Belafonte (one of the film’s producers) and Shari Belafonte, former wife Julie Belafonte and current wife Pamela Belafonte.

Following an early performance by Belafonte at the Village Vanguard in New York City, his mentor, the great singer and actor Paul Robeson, offered this counsel: “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

Born into a rough Harlem neighborhood in 1927, Belafonte’s immigrant mother sent him to be raised in her native Jamaica in an effort to ensure his safety; there he developed a cultural reservoir on which to build future artistic success. Upon the outbreak of World War II, he returned to Harlem, and later enlisted in the United States Navy, serving for almost two years as a munitions loader.

Returning to New York City, Belafonte worked in the garment center and as a janitor’s assistant. As gratuity for one apartment repair job, Belafonte was given a ticket to a production of “Home Is the Hunter” at the American Negro Theatre (ANT) in Harlem, which sparked a desire for a life in the performing arts.

Joining the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research under the tutelage of renowned German director Erwin Piscator, Belafonte attended class with fellow future stars like Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Bea Arthur, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis. He immersed himself in the world of theatre and found “a place of social truth and profound influence,” compelling him to make a commitment to use art as a source of inspiration to others, as well as an instrument of resistance and rebellion and a counter to racism.

Paralleling his pursuit of acting, an interest in jazz spurred him to develop a relationship with pioneers of the art form. In his first professional appearance, he performed with jazz titans Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Al Haig as his “back-up band.”

His first Broadway appearance, in “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” earned him a Tony Award. As the first black producer in television, he won an Emmy(R) for his network production of “An Evening with Belafonte,” directed by Norman Jewison. At the dawning of his film career, “Carmen Jones” took top critical honors, garnering two Oscar(R) nominations and winning the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy).

In SING YOUR SONG, Belafonte observes that while building a career, raising a family and enjoying his successes, there were always the larger concerns for freedom, justice, equality and human dignity. Since childhood, his mother impressed upon him that he should never awaken in a day when there wasn’t something on his agenda that would help set the course for the undermining of injustice. That larger concern at the center of his life and work connected him deeply with his mentor Robeson, a renaissance man of immense talents who sacrificed everything in the fight for freedom and justice.

Belafonte’s compassion and ardor also drew him to DR. Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said of his friend, “Belafonte’s global popularity and his commitment to our cause is a key ingredient to the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon in the civil rights movement here in America. We are blessed by his courage and moral integrity.”

Like Robeson before him, Belafonte has paid a price for his activism. Rather than compromise with bigotry and prejudice, he walked away from the money and exposure that compromise would have afforded him, for example, when sponsors of the groundbreaking and hugely popular television specials “Tonight with Belafonte” (1959) and “Belafonte, New York 19” (1960) balked at his racially integrated casts. Similar battles with Hollywood film producers over content and race led him to turn down other lucrative offers.

SING YOUR SONG was presented at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, as well as the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

HBO Documentary Films and Michael Cohl present a Belafonte Enterprises and S2BN Entertainment Production in association with Julius R. Nasso Productions; a film by Susanne Rostock; produced by Michael Cohl, Gina Belafonte, Jim Brown, William Eigen and Julius R. Nasso; co-produced by Sage Scully; edited by Susanne Rostock and Jason L. Pollard; consultant, Karol Martesko-Fenster; music composed by Hahn Rowe.

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It’s Showtime! 10 most defining moments of the Apollo!

On Tuesday, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Shaped American Entertainment” opens at the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibit contains artifacts from the venerable theater’s history, including James Brown’s jumpsuits and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. To mark the occasion, The Post asked Apollo experts to curate the venue’s 10 greatest moments.

“Jazz a la Carte” opens the Apollo, Jan. 26, 1934

The Apollo was built in 1914 as a 1,400-seat burlesque house for whites only. When Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia cracked down on indecent dancing, the Apollo’s owners started booking black performers and allowing black patrons. “It was during the Harlem Renaissance, and theater owners were vying to see who could bring the best ‘colored’ show to the theater,” says Apollo historian Billy Mitchell. The shift also took advantage of the neighborhood’s changing demographics; Harlem’s African-American population tripled from 1910 to 1930. That first show featured jazz musician Benny Carter and a chorus line called the “Gorgeous Hot Steppers.”

James Brown

Ella Fitzgerald wins Amateur Night, Nov. 21, 1934

A then-17-year-old Fitzgerald had signed up for the weekly show as a dancer on a dare. But when she discovered she was set to go on after the Edwards Sisters, a pair of dancing siblings, Fitzgerald got stage fright and tried backing out.

“I looked out and saw all those people and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do out here?’ ”

Fitzgerald told the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “I was real thin, skinny legs, and everybody started laughing, saying, ‘What is she gonna do?’ I couldn’t think of nothing else, so I tried to sing ‘The Object of My Affection.’ ” Fitzgerald would go on to perform more than 30 times at the theater between 1935 and 1959.

Sidney Poitier stars in “The Detective Story,” summer 1951

The first dramatic play to hit the Apollo’s stage starred the then-little-known Poitier. The actor landed the role in between working construction jobs and running a 127th Street soul-food joint. The show flopped and the reviews were unkind. “The goatee, which he sports apparently to add years to his youthful countenance, makes him look like a be-bop musician rather than a gumshoe,” Variety wrote.

The Motortown Revue rolls into town, December 1962

The names on the bill read like a who’s who of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops and a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder all visited the theater as part of a 10-night run showcasing Berry Gordy’s Motown label. “I saw that show,” Mitchell says. “Stevie was 12. Oh, man, I couldn’t believe this kid could play the organ, the harmonica, the drums and sing. That’s why they called him a wonder kid.”

Tito Puente takes the stage for the first time, June 12, 1953

“If you ask people if there was Latin music in the early years of the Apollo, they’d probably say no, because that is not what people think of as Apollo music,” says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s African American History and Culture Museum. But even in its earliest days as a burlesque theater, the Apollo held weekly all-Spanish matinee shows, catering to the people in nearby Spanish Harlem. When Cuban and other Latin music exploded in the ’50s, Apollo owner Frank Schiffman began booking regular acts. “When he brought Latin music in, he brought those at the top of the genre, so Tito Puente, Graciela Perez-Grillo, Celia Cruz,” Conwill says.

Puente and his band appeared for the first time in June 1953 (for $2,700), and Schiffman tersely recorded his impression on an index card: “Puente is a very cooperative person. No drawing power.”

The Jackson 5 wins Amateur Night, August 1967

The band, fronted by 9-year-old Michael, electrified the crowd and took home the prize that night. “I saw that show, and I tell you, before the kids even left the theater that night, word had spread all over Harlem that these kids were tearing the Apollo up,” Mitchell says. “There was that notion that the Apollo was the tastemaker,” says Conwill.

The Apollo reopens, Dec. 24, 1983

The theater was shuttered in January 1976 after an incident a month earlier when a man was shot and killed at a Smokey Robinson concert. It briefly reopened in 1978, but closed again the following year. Inner City Broadcasting bought it for $220,000 in the early ’80s, and the theater again reopened with a 1983 Christmas Eve Amateur Night show. “That was a big moment,” Mitchell says. “No one thought it would open again. It delighted the entire community.”

The Juice Crew All-Stars show, Nov. 18, 1988

Dozens of artists from the so-called Golden Age of Rap hit the stage at the Apollo. Run-DMC played as part of the 1987 season of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.” Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Doug E. Fresh also rocked the theater. But few shows better epitomized the MC culture of the late ’80s than the Juice Crew All-Stars, a collective of hip-hop musicians who came out of a Queens housing project. The show featured Big Daddy Kane, Roxanne Shanté, Marley Marl, Kool G. Rap and Biz Markie, who led the crowd in a chant of “Leave the crack alone.”

Paul McCartney rocks the stage for the first time, Dec. 13, 2010

Legend has it that when The Beatles first arrived in America in 1964, they asked the cab driver to take them straight to the Apollo. Nearly 50 years later, McCartney would get his chance to play there. During his show, he told the audience, “I want to take a moment. I just want to just soak in the Apollo. This is very special . . . the holy grail.”

James Brown records his “Live at the Apollo” album, Oct. 24, 1962

The Godfather of Soul had the idea to release a live album, but his record company wasn’t on board, so Brown spent $5,700 of his own money ($70,000 in today’s dollars) to record his shows. The album would go on to spend 66 weeks on the charts.

Legend has it that Brown performed during Amateur Night a decade earlier — and lost. “People didn’t like the type of clothing he had on,” Mitchell says. “He was from Georgia, so he didn’t look like a New Yorker. He borrowed clothes from a stagehand so he could go out there and be more acceptable.”

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