A performance installation inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes and the traditions of the Harlem Renaissance Rent Parties
“If Sweet Mamma is running wild,
And you’re looking for a Do-right, child,
Just come round and linger a while”
From a 1920s Rent Party “card” advert collected by Langston Hughes
RENT PARTY, a 21st-Century Austerity Britain immersive show inspired by the 1920s Harlem Renaissance Rent Parties. Like the 20s, we invite you the audience to pay to come to a party in our flat, so that we can make this month’s rent and entertain you with all our artist friends – dancers, singers, musicians, poets – who will create a kaleidoscopic picture of what it means today to be young, gifted, and black – and poor, and gay. Being broke never looked so fierce.
Rent for a two-bedroom flat on Beech Road, Chorlton, Manchester, November 2014: £1400/month.
Rent for a studio flat in Liverpool City Centre, February 2015: £1100/month.
Back when gay black poet Langston Hughes was young, in the 1920s when Harlem was having its Renaissance and was full of black musicians and poets and actors and playwrights and lift operators and cleaners and railway Pullman-car porters and folks just trying to make a living, they found that for black folks rents were considerably higher than for white people living in the same sort of accommodation. And work was hard to come by. Sky-high rents, low-paying jobs or no jobs at all – sound familiar? Austerity, anybody? Bedroom tax?
The Harlem solution to the rent problem was as inventive as you’d expect from the age that grew hot jazz and could afford to export Josephine Baker to Paris: people would get some musicians round their place to play some good dance music, invite some poets to entertain in between the songs, and get friends to pay on the door and pay for drinks. The hosts would make enough money to pay that month’s rent; the artists would get nice and up close to their audience and make new fans; and the guests would have a damn good time.
“Whip it to a jelly!/ Too bad Jim!/ Mamie’s got ma man –/ An’ I can’t find him.// Shake that thing! O!/ Shake it slow!/ That man I love is/ Mean an’ low.”
from Rent-Party Shout: For a Lady Dancer, by Langston Hughes
Using Langston Hughes’ poetry as a starting point and inspiration for new work and lyrics, we want to invite people to a 21st-Century Rent Party as down and dirty as the originals would have been: gritty, made for people in a city beset with high rents and low-paying jobs, by artists who club together to survive, by people who are outsiders by income or sexuality or temperament who come together to transcend the pain of being broke; to celebrate and to create and to defy anyone silly enough to exclude them. Blues to a punk rhythm: British Punk to a Harlem Renaissance beat.