The work of Richard Samuel Roberts has long been thought to have given a voice to those who may not otherwise have been heard during their lifetimes. Operating a photography studio in the segregated Columbia of the 1920s and ’30s, Roberts took portraits of members of the African-American community, telling the story of their lives in silent images, rendered in shades of gray, that have lasted long after the artist and his subjects are gone.
Now these Columbians of color from an earlier era are gaining a literal voice via a multi-disciplinary mix of live theatrical performance and jazz music, as the Columbia Museum of Art and its affinity group the Friends of African American Art and Culture join with actors from the NiA Company and musicians from both USC’s (the universities of South Carolina and Southern California) to present Harlem South: A View Through the Lens.
The photographs document the daily lives as well as the dreams and aspirations of African Americans of all ages and from all walks of life. They were originally collected in the book A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts 1920-1936, published by Bruccoli-Clark-Layman in 1986, and re-issued earlier this year by the USC Press.
An exhibition of Roberts’ work at the museum in 2012 caught the imagination of acclaimed jazz composer and musician Ron McCurdy, a professor at the University of Southern California, who was visiting Columbia at the time with a multimedia concert performance celebrating the work of poet Langston Hughes.
McCurdy then composed a symphonic piece inspired by these images of dignity and character, and collaborated on an accompanying script with Shana Redmond, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose academic work explores the confluence of music, race and politics in the black experience. The title, Harlem South, references the thriving, self-contained — yet still segregated — black business and social community that flourished along Columbia’s Washington Street during the Jim Crow era. This performance represents the East Coast and Southeastern premiere of the work.
McCurdy and fellow musicians from the West Coast will be joined by local musicians from USC’s School of Music and actors from the NiA Company, led by co-founder Darion McCloud, who directs this performance. McCloud explains that as images of Roberts’ photography are projected onto screens, McCurdy will lead a jazz ensemble on trumpet in instrumental sections of music, alternating with dialogue.
“Ron calls this show a concert,” McCloud says, “but while he has this whole music thing happening, we have this whole theater thing happening.”
“We approach history as if it’s under glass,” he continues, “but what was it like? These were real people (in Roberts’ photographs.) Once you remove the glass, the stories, man — that’s the part that gets people. … We try to construct the world of Roberts, so that his characters can interact with each other.”
While the script was originally written as a series of monologues, the NiA actors have played with the staging, so that, for example, a character seen in an earlier scene may be listening to and silently reacting to another character’s speech.
McCloud observes that Roberts’ work “isn’t just a black story, but a human story, in the same way that Van Gogh isn’t specifically a white artist, he’s just an artist.”
The director says that the photographer’s body of work “breaks all of these misconceptions about who black people were in the 1920s and ’30s.” He compares the fierce, independent tone of many of the images to similar photographs of abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass, one of the most photographed men of his generation. Douglass’ goal, McCloud explains, was “to confront the lies about black people with the reality of who they were,“ allowing himself to be photographed extensively throughout his life, to show people what an African-American man actually looked like.
McCloud sees this same theme expressed in an advertisement for Roberts’ studio that proclaimed, in part, “If you are beautiful, we guarantee to make your photographs just like you want them. If you are not beautiful, we guarantee to make you beautiful and yet to retain a true and brilliant likeness of you.”
McCloud points to the paradox of creating stories of actual people, imagining what their thoughts might have been solely from a photograph.
“These were real people,” he says, stressing that many of them have relatives and descendants in Columbia today. “But it’s not biographical — we have to speculate and imagine what these people might have been thinking, and what their lives might have been like.
“They may have been suffering, but not on that day — that may have been the best day of the year for them.”
What: Harlem South: A View Through the Lens
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Oct. 18-20 (7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday)
Price: $35 ($28 members; $5 students)
More: 803-799-2810, columbiamuseum.org