Nestled in a corner across from City College and New York City’s historic A. Phillip Randolph High School sits Harlem Stage, a performing arts theatre.
It was established in 1979 as City College’s Aaron Davis Hall, one of the few performance and theatre spaces in Harlem. Over the course of 38 years, Harlem Stage transformed into its own independent organization, remaining loyal to its mission of serving and highlighting marginalized voices in the creative field.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, The Gatehouse is a visual cornerstone of Harlem’s rich diaspora. The Romanesque Revival building, designed in 1884, has a distinct history, once operated as a gatehouse for New York City’s Croton Aqueduct system.
Since its first revival in the late 1970s, this elegant building has been one of the only permanent performance spaces in Harlem, featuring artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Phylicia Rashad. More importantly, The Gatehouse was and continues to be a center point for the amplification of Harlem’s grassroots creative community.
Never has The Gatehouse been more committed to this mission of highlighting marginalized creatives than it is today, as evidenced by the hire of their new Director of Programs, Monique Martin.
In an interview with Ms. Martin, Gumbo inquired about her career choices and vision for Harlem Stage. We engaged with Martin around how divine timing helped her career flourish, whether or not women in creative industries can “have it all,” and perhaps most pressing, what she envisions for the future of Harlem Stage as it continues to serve its surrounding community amidst gentrification and imposing cultural changes.
Gumbo: What led you to become the Director of Programming at Harlem Stage?
Monique Martin (MM): What was interesting about my childhood, I was always a producer. I grew up in Berkeley, California and [later] my family moved to Oakland.
I have photographs of me giving concerts and plays in my backyard. During my early elementary school days, I would do Bible story plays [such as] the Good Samaritan play. I am fortunate that my family saw art and culture as something integral to our upbringing.
My father was an amateur musician so we had a piano in the house. We all took piano lessons and learned other various instruments. My mother was a theatre enthusiast, so we saw every single show that came through San Francisco as well as local productions.
When we moved to Oakland, I would give concerts in my backyard while I was in high school. I have photographs of full bands in my backyard. No one in my family worked in the arts, so I never thought this was a career path. I went to school for Journalism and I thought that would be my career. When I was in high school we had a television station, so I learned how to be a producer.
When I went to college to study journalism, I wanted to be on camera to be a newscaster. Through my internships and other experiences, I discovered that newscasters are really just reading something someone else wrote and it’s not so much journalistic.
I didn’t have the passion and acumen to do deep dive journalism, so I thought I could be an actress. I went to American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) for acting and discovered quickly that was not my gift or passion. [While studying there], I thought out of everyone in the room, the Stage Manager was the closest to the Director (but I didn’t have a passion to be a director) and that could be a career. So I decided to leave journalism and move to New York to be a stage manager on Broadway. I became a stage manager for Broadway and national tours. From there I entered the music industry as a tour manager for new artists.
Around 1996, Gina Thompson had a one-hit-record [“The Things That You Do”] that was huge. Puffy [P. Diddy] did the remix and Missy Elliot was on the record. [While traveling on tour with her,] it was me, Missy Elliot, two backup dancers and Gina’s dad traveling the country to promote the song; I discovered that the music industry was not where I wanted to be. The music industry is a different animal in terms of creation. When you’re working for a label, you’re not close to the creative process. You’re basically administering what is already done and I wanted to get back to creativity that comes through theatre and other forms.
I went back to The Public Theater and worked on “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk.” I also did the national tour as the Marketing Director and Community Outreach Coordinator of Noise Funk. Later on, I started curating programming for the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub and then went to River to River.
That was my first time I did outdoor presenting and I loved it. It reminded me of my childhood—when I went to performances outdoors. I also enjoyed being able to present stellar programming for free. From there I went to Central Park’s Summer Stage and I had a wonderful ten-year experience. [I entered the Harlem Stage family] when they invited me to sit on a panel and then produce their Spring Gala. My current position became available and they offered it to me. It was just divine timing and taking a risk to do what they say: “If you jump off a cliff, a net will appear.” I’m just over the moon and thrilled.
Gumbo: Aw, I needed to hear that. I’ve been through a lot of transitions in my career lately and needed to be reminded of the unexpected surprises that come to help transition you. To shift gears a bit, I grew up in Harlem—my father owned a business by the Polo Grounds. Over time neighborhoods in Harlem have changed. So, what legacy do you want the Harlem Stage to have in New York City and its surrounding community?
MM: Harlem Stage has a history of incubating and nurturing artists of color, so I’m excited to be able to be a steward of continuing that mission and legacy.
Like any community that’s going through gentrification and shifts in demographics, the need is to reassess who our audience is but continue to engage those who have been loyal and not take them for granted.
Harlem Stage has a history of incubating and nurturing artists of color, so I’m excited to be able to be a steward of continuing that mission and legacy.
Those two things at the same time are bit of a dance to do, and geographically, where Harlem Stage is located, has its own challenges and rewards.
[I asked] our next WaterWorks artist Tamar-kali: “What are your thoughts on the geographic location?” She said there are so few places in New York City where you can discover something off the beaten path.
Every single corner is being gentrified and has new housing–million-dollar condos are being put up [in communities where people cannot afford them]. This includes everything else that brings tension when new people are being brought into neighborhoods.
So, how are people discovering Harlem Stage? That is something I am taking on as a challenge as a programmer and on the leadership team here.
The open house we just had is one of those pathways to open the doors up to neighborhood residents and I wanted them to see that you can come in and not have to dress a certain way. The main mission of Harlem Stage is to incubate and support artists of color. But what does that mean? Who is of color?
Many times if it’s an Asian initiative then it’s [solely] Asian. If it’s African-American, then it’s just African-American. And we leave out the Caribbean and we leave out Africa and that’s one of the things I am looking at, to really amplify and expand who a person of color is–both artists and audience members–and how we can make those connections.
We are launching this season with a company that is from Burkina Faso, focusing on the francophone [populace] that’s been in Harlem for decades. The piece that will be performed is a dance piece that has a live band and it’s called Declassified Memory Fragment.
It looks at how we selectively remember different histories, whether that is your family, culture or country. With African countries, there is a lot of beauty in each culture and tradition, but there’s also corruption.
The family history (for all cultures–which makes this piece universal) is the stuff we [as a society] don’t want to talk about and sweep under the rug. That’s why it’s titled Declassified Memory because it’s really asking who gets to classify a memory. Who gets to say what this history was and what it will be. It’s a funny piece, it’s joyous, difficult, rigorous and I believe it widens the lens of the diaspora.
Gumbo: What advice do you have for creatives who are ready to launch their careers and share their stories?
MM: I am slightly envious of the access millennials have to audiences. Even in the ’90s (and it sounds like ancient times), you couldn’t record a video of a meeting/performance and post it to social media to get the reaction of followers. To be able to keep your audience with you through the creative process is unlike any other time we lived in.
I think this is such an exciting time for creatives to use all the outlets available to propagate their ideas and dreams. I also believe it’s important for millennials to team build.
Whether you want to enter the music industry, or if you’re in television and film, there’s no need to rely on a label or network. Issa Rae is a great example, having her Youtube show and then HBO came looking for her.
Shonda Rhimes is going to Netflix when she’s already had so much success on network television. But now, she can take more risks.
I think this is such an exciting time for creatives to use all the outlets available to propagate their ideas and dreams. I also believe it’s important for millennials to team build. Millennials tend to be very individualist, and every project should be collaborative. You need a team; whether a funder, producer or a network [is reviewing your work], at the end of the day they are looking for who’s on your team.
Sure they are looking at numbers but they are looking for the team that’s coming with you. Oftentimes that gets lost because everyone wants to be Beyonce.
Gumbo: What do you recommend women of color in the creative industries focus on to create room for their personal goals?
MM: I’m very proud to be a mother–and I was a wife, although I am divorced. But I am very proud I took the time to include [motherhood] in my life; being a mother certainly shifts your career priorities.
I say to my friends who are in their late-thirties/ early-forties and are starting to get anxious, “Do it!” because there is never a good time. I didn’t plan to have my son.
It’s also wise to have friends outside of your industry. My own have helped me open up my mind to what else is going on in the world because oftentimes your social and professional lives (in this industry) are converged. Do you have any friends who know policy, politics and not the soundbites that we hear on Huffington Post or CNN?
I’m insatiably curious so I try to plant myself in different settings. It’s important to know when to be out, to network and when it’s time for ideation or to dream, because there is so much noise in the world competing for your attention. Find time to just be still.