The performance began with an introduction from Pat Cruz, the executive director of the Harlem Stage, who reminded the audience “if [they] were seeing this in any other part of America, [they] would be much farther back than [they] currently were.” Indeed, the performance was a uniquely intimate affair. Not only did the stage protrude out further than in most theatres—quite literally bringing the performance closer to the audience—but two rows of folding chairs had been placed in front of the theatre’s permanent seats, offering audience members the opportunity to observe the celebrated performers from just feet away. Chairs also lined both sides of the stage, making it a kind of central platform, an inviting focal point, rather than the typical, inaccessible stage. This arrangement broke the usual barrier between audience and performers, allowing for a stronger than usual connection between the two. The set was also designed to create an intimate atmosphere, consisting simply of three Persian rugs beneath a grand piano, a bass, and a drum set. Through its deliberate seating arrangement and set design, the performance achieved a rare level of intimacy between audience and performers. Those attending the performance felt less like audience members than guests in Williams’ sitting room, privy to one of her many musical salons at 63 Hamilton Terrace (mere blocks from the theatre itself).
By the end of this visionary tribute, audience members had been transported on a captivating musical journey spanning Williams’ long and influential career. They were invited to experience her legacy through a variety of modes: music (both instrumental and vocal), the spoken words of Williams herself, and a stage recreating this iconic musician’s personal artistic space. The concert, like Williams’ character and career, was rich, dynamic, and full. In a post-production interview, Merkerson expressed her satisfaction with the performance, stating that the chance to be a part of “recognizing [the history of music in Harlem] and bringing it to a larger audience” within today’s Harlem community was an “ extraordinary and wonderful experience.” Allen expressed similar satisfaction, remarking, “not only did [the show] fulfill my expectations, it exceeded them!” She also expressed her gratitude, emphasizing that although the performance originated from her artistic vision, it would not have been possible without the collaboration and talent of director S. Epatha Merkerson, scriptwriter Ferah Jasmin Griffin, vocalist Carmen Lundy, and band members Kenny Davis (bass) and Kassa Overall (drums). “Without them,” she said, “the performance wouldn’t be living onstage.” And what a living performance it was.
for Harlem One Stop, Beat on the Street