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Storyteller Brings Harlem Renaissance To St. Louis

Storyteller Bobby Norfolk's 'Take the A Train' opens Jan. 10, 2015.
Courtesy of Bobby Norfolk

It’s said that the arts can heal. Storyteller Bobby Norfolk is working on finding out if it’s true with Ferguson.

Norfolk is collaborating with producer Beverly Brennan on a yearlong series highlighting the talents of black and white performing artists starting with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a tour of the Harlem Renaissance.

“It’s a program that’s been a longtime coming, in terms of things that have been going on not only in St. Louis and St. Louis County, but in America in general and how to take those incidents that have been very, very traumatic to people in America and trying to heal through the arts,” Norfolk told “Cityscape” host Steve Potter on Friday.

“We want the audience to feel like they’re getting on board and they’re stopping at different stations along the way for comedy or for music and taking a little break in the dining car and taking a trip through what the entertainment was like during the Harlem Renaissance,” Brennan said.

In the 1920s and early ’30s, Harlem was a cultural center for black artists. The Harlem Renaissance is credited with influencing future black writers and artists.

“Harlem Renaissance was a time when the arts were flourishing, particularly for African-Americans,” Brennan said, who also is the director of theater and drama at Harris-Stowe State University. “It was where everybody came together — the singers, the musicians, the actors, the poets.”

Langston Hughes was one of the movement’s most famous writers; “Take the ‘A’ Train” is dedicated to Hughes.

“The funny thing about Langston Hughes from the Harlem Renaissance is that he’s so very relevant today,” Brennan said. “He was not just a poet, as most people think of him. He was a humorist. He was a social activist. He was very much committed to civil rights. The more and more Bobby and I looked at this material, edited, wrote narration, the more we discovered that the issues that Langston Hughes brought to life through his writing are the very same issues we’re grappling with today.”

“Take the ‘A’ Train” starts with Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” and drops in a reference to Ferguson. “That was artistic license,” Norfolk said. He said he shares Hughes’ goals: “What he wanted to do was to heal through the arts,” Norfolk said. “He wanted to take the African-American experience and he wanted to enlighten white America.”

Each performance in the series will include a mix of words and live music, and black and white performers.

“That’s the key, the tie, I think, in healing through the arts: to bring black and white together, just like the piano keys,” Norfolk said.

Related Event

“Take the ‘A’ Train”

  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015; 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015
  • Where: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis
  • More information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.