Hirschfeld book features stage acts

THEATER

New volume focuses on Harlem artists

February 05, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Keyed to Black History Month - and just in time for Valentine's Day - is Hirschfeld's Harlem (Glenn Young Books, 128 pages, $75), a beautiful valentine to African-American artists of Harlem and beyond.

The large, lush volume - with 30 color plates and 90 black and whites - is a greatly expanded reissue of a 1941 collection of illustrations by the great show-business artist Al Hirschfeld, who died in January 2003 at age 99.

Curated by the artist's widow, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, the book includes an introduction written by the artist shortly before his death. "Harlem residents," he wrote, "perfected an art form beyond the Arts, beyond the stage, beyond the Cotton Club. Very real people meeting reality head on and then stubbornly transcending it. Some commentators have made much of the fact that these aren't Hirschfeld's typical performers. Well, they're not on the stretch of Broadway I had covered before or since. But these Harlemites are performers all right. They are in rehearsal for the performance of their lives. It's that grand profound ritual I hope to have captured here."

Features added to the book include: commentary on Hirschfeld's 1941 collection by such celebrities as Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Quincy Jones (who composed a little ditty); Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang," which appeared in The American Mercury in 1942 with Hirschfeld's illustrations; and an extensive collection of Hirschfeld's drawings of "African American Legends," accompanied by his comments, as told to publisher Young.

"In drawing black performers, I've rarely made their faces black," the artist says in his remarks about a 1992 drawing of Gregory Hines in Jelly's Last Jam. "Very odd when you think about it. I think it's because I feel a person's blackness comes from someplace near the solar plexus. The features, the movement delineate the character while the color ultimately isn't terribly important."

Finally, area readers will get an added treat from the inclusion of drawings of such former Baltimoreans as Trezana Beverley, Eubie Blake, Charles S. Dutton, Billie Holiday and Avon Long. Hirschfeld's Harlem is well worth a visit.

McKean, maybe

How do you fill the over-sized high heels worn by Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway production of Hairspray? Producer Margo Lion says she and her co-producers are in discussions with and "very enthusiastic about" the possibility of actor Michael McKean assuming the role of Bawlamer matriarch Edna Turnblad after Fierstein leaves the show May 2.

McKean, who played Lenny on the long-running ABC series Laverne & Shirley, is nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the song "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," from Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind, in which he portrays an aging folksinger; other movie credits include such other mockumentaries as Guest's Best in Show and Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap.

A Williams celebration

There's more news from Washington's Kennedy Center about "Tennessee Williams Explored," the forthcoming celebration of the late playwright. Patrick Wilson (seen most recently in Angels in America on HBO) has been cast as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tony Award winner George Grizzard will play Big Daddy, and Emily Skinner, a veteran of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, will play Mae. The production, which runs June 12-July 4, will be directed by Mark Lamos; he replaces Gerald Gutierrez, who died Dec. 30 at age 53 of complications from the flu. The pivotal role of Maggie the Cat has not yet been cast.

Meanwhile, Amy Ryan, whose credits include the recurring role of Officer Beatrice Russell on HBO's The Wire and a Tony-nominated performance in the 2000 production of Uncle Vanya, has been cast as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (May 8-30). A young actor named Adam Rothenberg will play Stanley, and Irish actor Brian F. O'Byrne has been cast as Mitch. By the way, since we reported the casting of Patricia Clarkson as Blanche DuBois, the actress has been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a dying mother in Pieces of April.

Lastly, Kathleen Chalfant (best known for her roles in the New York stage productions of Angels in America andWit), will take on various characters in the anthology of one-acts Five by Tenn (April 21-May 9).

For more information on the Williams celebration, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

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