Thursday, March 31, 2016

Remembering Tamiris, Part 7: How Long, Brethren?

(A WPA poster promoting Tamiris's "Negro Spirituals," and also her production of How Long, Brethren?, 1937. Image courtesy of George Mason University, Special Collections & Archives.)

During her time as a WPA choreographer, Helen Tamiris's most successful dance production was How Long, Brethren? It ran from May 6 to July 4, 1937, at the Nora Bayes Theatre at 216 W. 44th Street; re-opened in July at the Maxine Elliot Theatre at 109 W. 39th Street; and, as you can see from the poster above, had a return engagement at the 49th Street Theatre in December. 

How Long, Brethren? was based on African American songs of protest, and told of "poverty, starvation, injustice, and death. The final song ended in a plea to change all this." The production included an African American chorus and a full orchestra. Tamiris's choreography and dancing stunned the audience: "The simple and honest movement and the eloquent design made the opening night audience stand up and cheer. In fact, the reaction was so whole-hearted and spontaneous that the show was interrupted many times by applause and shouts so loud the dancers could not hear the orchestra or the chorus in the pit" (Christina L. Schlundt, Helen Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927-1955, New York Public Library, 1972, pp. 46 and 52-53).

On June 20, 1937, the following was reported in the New York Times: "Tamiris, director and premiere danseuse of the Federal Theatre dance drama, 'How Long, Brethren?' received the Dance Magazine's annual award of excellence in a formal presentation last night at the Nora Bayes Theatre, where the production is now running. Her direction of the group choreography in 'How Long, Brethren?' was termed the 'most brilliant for the year 1936-37.'"

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