March 13 2013 12:00 AM

'Garden of Joy' brings words and music of the Harlem Renaissance to Wharton Center


The poets and musicians of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance bottled enough of New York’s fabled “Negro Metropolis” to keep you high on Harlem for the rest of your life.

“The deep-dyed color, the thickness, the closeness of it,” novelist Claude McKay wrote. “The sugared laughter. The honey-talk on its streets. And all night long, ragtime and ‘blues’ playing somewhere, singing somewhere, dancing somewhere! Oh, the contagious fever of Harlem.”

But Detroit pianist Alvin Waddles, musical director of the Wharton Center’s new musical play, “Garden of Joy,” wants people to see a bigger picture.

“It wasn’t just a big party,” Waddles said.  “There’s a struggle underneath the celebration.”

“Garden of Joy” uses the perfect metaphor for people struggling to be heard — a radio play. It’s also the perfect venue for a party. The mélange of drama, spoken word performances and music is packed into a fantasy radio broadcast on New Year’s Eve 1929 from a real Harlem nightclub called the Garden of Joy.

At the heart of the Harlem Renaissance is a dark fire that defies analysis. “There are whole books on why it happened,” Waddles said, “but I just think it was one of those magical times when the right people were at the right place and fed on one another’s creativity.” 

Musically, the path isn’t hard to trace. “Southerners had migrated there and brought the blues with them,” Waddles said. “Ragtime was turning into stride, a more cosmopolitan and mainstream type of jazz.”

Behind the joy in their music are bitter truths that fueled the creativity of the period.

The Harlem piano greats, from Duke Ellington to James P. Johnson to Fats Waller, were lionized around the world, but couldn’t stay in hotels or eat in restaurants back home.

Black soldiers returning from World War I also felt the contrast.

“A lot of them had hope of being welcomed into the larger culture, like they did after the Civil War and any conflict,” Waddles said.

In Claude McKay’s novel, “Home to Harlem,” returning soldier Jake walks the Harlem streets, giddy with joy: “The sky was a grand blue benediction, and beneath it the wonderful air of New York tasted like fine dry champagne.”

But in “Returning Soldiers,” a powerful oration by writer and social critic W.E.B. DuBois, American liberators return to a land of disenfranchisement and lynching. The speech’s famous conclusion (“we return from fighting/We return fighting”) is featured in “Garden of Joy.”

“Make way for Democracy!” Dubois exhorted. “We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.” 

To capture a story with so many dimensions, “Garden of Joy” producer/director Bert Goldstein called on Ken LaZebnik, a writer for long-running radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” LaZebnik and Goldstein had already collaborated in February 2011 on another play commissioned by the Wharton Center, “Theory of Mind.” 

A mosaic of supporters was assembled for the production, from Wharton’s Institute for Arts and Creativity to Michigan State University’s Office of Inclusion to an endowment fund for new works left by former Wharton executive director Bill Wright.

LaZebnik and Goldstein agreed that a “Prairie”-style radio format would be a perfect showcase for the Harlem Renaissance, with wall-to-wall music gluing the drama, poetry and politics together.

A pianist was needed who could morph fluidly from ragtime to stride to barrelhouse blues, and who could play in the styles of Ellington, Waller and even Maurice Ravel (a fascinated French visitor to Harlem). He also had to look large and in charge on stage.

It didn’t take long to find such a man. Waddles is a prodigious and protean keyboard talent who has played all his life in Detroit churches, at classical concerts and jazz festivals, and in shows of his own devising.

For “Garden of Joy,” Waddles actually had to reign in his abilities to madly channel pianists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Ludwig van Beethoven and Oscar Peterson, but he is more than content to color inside lines this generous. “The creative output of this era is overwhelming,” he said. “I’m as struck by its intensity as I am at by most people’s ignorance about it.”

At hundreds of outreach concerts at schools and other places, Waddles fights an uphill battle. 

“I find a lot of white folks know more about (the Harlem Renaissance) than a lot of African-Americans,” he said. “As a people, I find that we know surprisingly little about our heritage. We know what’s going on right now, but we seem to have no idea how we got there, or the people who paved the way with great sacrifices.”

‘Garden of Joy’
8 p.m.
March 15-16
Pasant Theatre,
Wharton Center