By Mary Damiano
Great sports stories are never about sports.
And Kings of Harlem, a riveting play now at M Ensemble in Miami is a great sports story. Even though it about a basketball team, the Harlem Renaissance—the Harlem Rens for short—who were great champions of the Negro leagues before major league sports were integrated and were largely whitewashed from mainstream history, basketball is just the vehicle for a story about men with heart and what they meant to a marginalized community.
Written and directed by Layon Gray, Kings of Harlem begins with an inspiring, powerful speech that Coach “Pops” Coffey (Allan Louis) delivers to his team before the biggest game of their lives in 1939. Fast forward to present day, in which the coach’s grandson Benjamin Coffey (Ray Lockhart) is delivering a Powerpoint presentation which about the historical significance of the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, the social hub of Harlem, which has been bulldozed by a corporation. This prologue lays the groundwork for the story of the Harlem Rens, and seamlessly flows into their story.
And while Kings of Harlem details the Harlem Rens’ championship season that year, culminating with a post-season integrated series, the real story is the men on the team, what drives them, what they mean to their community, and what it means to them to be better, faster and to win more games, yet still be denied the chance to play in the league with their white counterparts.
The scenic design is simple: a basketball court, which serves the few other locales well. And though he is not credited as choreographer, Gray has staged some spectacular moves, not just in the course of the actual game scenes but in rhythmic practice sessions and sequences evoking the jazz and swing era that are absolutely thrilling.
The cast is excellent. Andre L. Gainey is terrific as JoJo, the oldest player on the team, who takes a fatherly interest in the younger players. Chris Boldon adds some comic relief as fast-talking Nat, but is also heart-breaking when he relates what drives him. Marquise Rogers shines in a harrowing scene in which his character, Clem, relates a family tragedy. And as Pops, Louis embodies the kind of leader a team would follow anywhere.
This is the first show in M Ensemble’s new space, the Sandrell Rivers Theatre in the Audrey M. Edmondson Transit Village in Miami. The new venue is handsome and spacious, with a nimble black box space, the kind of home M Ensemble deserves.
As Benjamin Coffey says several times during the play, “History deserves the right to live.” With Kings of Harlem, Gray has created a fitting home for this forgotten piece of history, and has made M Ensemble’s production the first must-see show of the year. Do not miss it.
Kings of Harlem runs through January 29. For tickets and more information, visit TheMEnsemble.com.