They Do Not Know Harlem: In Communion With James Baldwin

Friday, May 10 & Saturday, May 11,7:30 p.m., free

Rubenstein Arts Center, Durham

Tristan André Parks is an immersive artist, dancer, movement activist, organizer, and storyteller who has an MFA from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Professional Actor’s Training Program. His performance piece They Do Not Know Harlem is timely in more ways than one: Film lovers and critics are still celebrating the success of Barry Jenkins’s award-winning adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, and an hour-long conversation between Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni in 1971 has been making the rounds on social media. Baldwin is having a moment, but his work is always relevant and resonant, especially for black people living in the United States. 

Parks has been researching, developing, and refining They Do Not Know Harlem for nearly a year. Over the past two months, he’s delved deeper into Baldwin’s essays and received audience feedback from workshop performances at NorthStar Church of the Arts and Walltown Children’s Theatre. Now, Parks is excited to introduce new “artistic and technical elements” for his full-length performance this weekend at Duke’s Rubenstein Arts Center, as the pinnacle of his three-week residency at Thomas DeFrantz’s SLIPPAGE Lab.

They Do Not Know Harlem is more than a performance. It is, in Parks’s words, “a spiritual workshop.” In contrast to conventional theater, where the audience watches, claps, stands up, and goes home, Parks is “catalyst and conduit for Baldwin” and invokes an Africanist aesthetic of participation and call-and-response. 

“I want to disrupt—my objective as self-producer and creator of this piece is to not tell the audience what to do, but I want there to be room for them to feel as though they have found a place where they can express themselves creatively, spiritually, and metaphysically,” Parks explains, adding, “We all have the power of choice to express ourselves. What better way to do it than through art?”

Parks’s innovative piece will travel through jazz, gospel, blues, and trap. It engages black song and the aesthetics of the black church. Parks encourages folks to “Come as you are, and we’ll go from there.” If you missed the fundraiser at the Walltown Children’s Theatre, there’s still time to donate online

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