In the summer of 2004, Keith Lee Grant, a tenured professor of Theatre at the City College of New York, founded The Harlem Repertory Theatre (HRT). Its first season in Aaron Davis Hall on the City College (CCNY) campus was ambitions indeed producing the popular Broadway musicals HAIR, THE WIZ and a new musical theatre piece, VODU. The subsequent seasons included an eclectic range of musicals, plays and a Shakespeare comedy. Among the offerings were BYE BYE BIRDIE, WEST SIDE STORY, CABARET, DREAMGIRLS, TAMBOURINES TO GLORY, DUTCHMAN and AS YOU LIKE IT. The HRT was founded, with support of The City College of New York, to bring low-cost professional theatre to the Harlem Community while also providing performance and technical theatre opportunities for CCNY students, alumni, and other actors. Another priority for the HRT then, as now, is its dedication to inclusive, color-blind casting, offering minority actors the opportunity to explore roles that have been traditionally denied to them.
After seven years of producing summer seasons at the College, in 2010 The HRT was forced to move off the campus, costing the company to lose its primary source of funding. After a year spent re-grouping, Grant and several dedicated company members pooled their resources to relaunch the HRT in the heart of Harlem. This time at the 70-seat, second-floor theatre in the 133rd Street Arts Center. Funds were limited so Mr. Grant took out an equity loan to cover the production costs. It was naturally difficult to adjust to a much smaller theatre space after seven years performing in the state-of-the-art 300-600 seat spaces in Aaron Davis Hall. However, it was during their residency at the Arts Center that the HRT’s production of DREAMGIRLS received positive reviews in the New York papers, including one in the New York Times. The production received AUDELCO awards for Best Director, Choreographer, and Actress in a Musical. With this newfound recognition, the HRT hoped to make permanent their home at the 133rd Street Arts Center.
Unfortunately, after struggling to produce two seasons at the 133rd Street Arts Center, the building was condemned and the HRT once again found itself without a home. Mr. Grant took out a loan from his retirement account and moved the company to the Tato Laviera Theatre in East Harlem where they reside today. The theatre had been abandoned for years and the HRT needed to replace the sound system, lighting board, and instruments. There were no chairs in the auditorium or furniture in the dressing rooms. With the personal loan from his retirement, financial planning and hard work, Mr. Grant and his volunteer staff invested time and resources to bring this valuable East Harlem cultural institution back to life.
It has been a struggle to keep the HRT going now for over 13 years – however – one powerful motivation for Mr. Grant and his company has been the reception from the audience and members who have supported the Harlem Repertory Theatre throughout the years. And also, the aspiration and hopes spoke by one of America’s finest writers, which is at the heart of why the HRT was founded:
“…On the opening night… a beaming Langston renew(ed) his promise of a Harlem repertory theatre: ‘We want to build a theatre for you folks, a theatre for which you may write, in which you may act. This is your theatre.’ “
-Langston Hughes, April 21, 1938
Langston Hughes’ desire to build a professional theatre in Harlem has inspired Mr. Grant to persevere through the challenging periods when the company lacked funds to operate or a space in which to rehearse and perform. To this day, Langston Hughes’ dream inspires the company to go into the Tato Laviera Theatre week after week and year after year to produce high quality and reasonably priced plays and musicals for the people of Harlem and the Tri-State Area. (Current ticket prices range from $10 – $50, including student and senior discounts). The average ticket price for an HRT production is just $18!
Although we don’t know where the future will take the Harlem Repertory Theater, Mr. Grant and his devoted company members will continue to work to bring low-cost professional theatre to their community. We feel motivated to realize Hughes’ dream because we have now made it ours.
The dream of the Harlem Repertory Theatre has been made possible by a supportive community and the generous assistance of the YIP Harburg Foundation.