Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary digital admission to write an open and honest review of the Tap Family Reunion production, The Mayor of Harlem.
The Joyce Theater Foundation in Chelsea (NYC) has been providing a home to innovative dance since 1982, and this week provides a real delight to lift the spirits of pandemic-weary tap lovers like me, as they have moved their annual Tap Family Reunion online. Tap legends Dormeshia, Derrick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith honour National Tap Dance Day, birthday of the genre’s founding father Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, with a thrilling tribute to his legacy.
Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson
Born in Richmond; Virginia in 1878, Robinson rose from dancing for pennies at the market through vaudeville and Broadway to Hollywood, becoming the most prominent black entertainer of his age. His lighter, raised-heel dance style revolutionized tap; and his contributions to the local black community earned him the honorary title ‘Mayor of Harlem,’ from which this show gets its title.
And, since we’re on the the subject of Harlem, it’s not just home to tap dance.
Dance Theatre of Harlem, who produced Creole Giselle, also lives here.
The Mayor of Harlem Review
Robinson himself is played by Maurice Chestnut, and with an ensemble cast of six treats us to a portrayal of four aspects of his life: The Hustler, The Star, The Sacrifice, and The Activist, told in a colourful blend of song, dance, and soliloquy, in partnership with a savvy jazz quartet. I particularly enjoyed the simple yet innovative staging, that creatively used colour, visuals and costuming in harmony to take us from scene to scene.
The sounds of tap themselves were woven seamlessly into the scenery and storytelling from the beginning, recreating the rhythms of steam trains and racing horses, as we are taken from the streets of Robinson’s youth to New York City and stardom. (It was certainly no accident that the train footage chosen to portray this journey featured a Pullman carriage, whose porters played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement by forming the first all-black union in 1925).
“[The] four aspects of his life: The Hustler, The Star, The Sacrifice, and The Activist, [are] told in a colourful blend of song, dance, and soliloquy, in partnership with a savvy jazz quartet.”
From here this talented and diverse ensemble show us the thrills of jazz-age clubs and theatres, the highs of Hollywood glory and lonely lows of his personal ordeals. The fourth act reaches a thrilling peak, as urban dance styles and costumes are combined with stark visual imagery of the civil rights movement and pulsating poly-rhythms to reflect the ongoing struggle of racism. After reaching a desperate apex, our dancers falter, until Robinson reappears as a ghost-like inspirational figure, movingly empowering them to rise once more.
For a moment I craved more context to link the different stages of the story and more indication of the hardships encountered along Robinson’s journey. But, on reflection, I wonder if that perhaps isn’t the point. This is a truer reflection of what artists of colour still experience today, showing up night after night to perform the emotional labour of entertaining us and brightening our lives, regardless of how bleak their own situation outside the theatre may be… And, in the end, the production is a very fitting tribute to the spirit of Bojangles.
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The choreography reflected the game-changing nature of Robinson’s technique, leaving behind the heavier flat-footed method with his arrival in NYC and remaining on the toes for the rest of the tap, while his iconic stair dance was given faithful treatment, and the rhythms and shapes of hip hop were later incorporated to convey his ongoing relevance. I thoroughly enjoyed this concise and considered homage to a giant of the genre, and the genuine love and respect for his legacy held by all involved was palpable.
How to View Tap Family Reunion’s The Mayor of Harlem
The Mayor of Harlem was commissioned, in part, with the support of The Joyce Theater Foundation’s Stephen and Cathy Weinroth Fund for New Work; and you can stream it On Demand until June 3 at 11:59pm EDT for $25 USD (per household).
You may purchase tickets here: https://www.joyce.org/4th-annual-tap-family-reunion .
All information correct and up to date at time of publication.