Spirit of Harlem nights brought to today's UK

Christmas parties are in full swing but the one happening in the Crucible Studio is unlike anything most people will have experienced.

Thursday, 14th December 2017, 08:52 am
Updated Thursday, 14th December 2017, 08:55 am

Rent Party is an immersive show with dancers, singers, musicians and poets who will get the audience up on their feet to join in the festivities.

Director Darren Pritchard dreamed up the idea. “Four years ago I got asked if I would like to do a piece for Homotopia, a gay festival in Liverpool, on Langston Hughes. He was a black gay poet and leading light in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

“When I researched him I found he wrote about these rent parties in which black artists would get together at their flats back in the 1920s. Tenants would charge an admission fee to help them offset the high rents and low wages for black people. They would hold these parties which had live music and dance and singing. It’s where the idea of the piano battles comes from – where one pianist would follow on from another.”

Langston Hughes built up a collection of rent party invitation cards from 1925 to 1960, many of which had rhyming lines on them.

“When I went back to them with all this research they asked me if I wanted to do a show and I agreed but didn’t want it to be about America but to be set in austerity Britain,” continues Pritchard. “I wanted to show what’s it like to be gay, black and poor in today’s climate.”

With writer Cheryl Martin he created Rent Party: Domestic Edition which was given a try-out last year in Manchester and Liverpool.

“Javaad Alipor (Sheffield Theatres artist in residence with a brief to increase diversity) came to see it when it was in R & D (research and development) and said: ‘This would make an amazing Christmas show for Sheffield’ and they agreed to do it. It pushes the boundaries but it’s great they are taking the risk.

“So the Crucible has got a fun show which is just what you want in December.”

The cast of two females and three men range in age from 23 to 38. “I wanted it to be predominantly young because it is young people who will have to face this future,” says Pritchard.

“We start with two straight girls telling their stories and then the show gradually takes shape and it ends with a party in which the audience join in,” he continues.

“It’s performed in a U-shaped auditorium with the audience on three sides . We are in the middle and the comedy and songs are performed right among the audience so they are involved all the time. There’s a lot of audience participation.but you are in safe hands. We don’t want to embarrass anyone or make them uncomfortable. If they just want to sit back quietly that will be fine.”

The setting is firmly in present day North of England rather than 1920s Harlem. “There is a section which is a homage to where it comes from but I really wanted it to be of the moment,” explains Pritchard. “Rent Party is a metaphor for what people need to do to survive in this climate.

“It’s a lot of fun and there’s comedy, some of it what the gay community call shade, a kind of ambiguity,

Darren Pritchard’s background is in contemporary dance, joining Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company when he was 21. He subsequently returned home to Manchester where he set up his own company.

Rent Party runs in the Crucible Studio from tonight, December 14, to December 23.