Harry: Making a Case for ‘Cool’

Some people are destined for greatness. You hear a name and think that person is going places in life. Not to say that each of us doesn’t have our own distinct path, but certain people project a greater sense of purpose and can perceptively do no wrong. Definitely, maybe?

Harry was cool. The way he pranced across the stage captivating audiences around the world with his smooth, baritone voice. Harry was unequivocal. Using his popularity as a platform to champion social injustice in the face of danger, and jeopardization of his career. More importantly, Harry was human…and still is. Although, one would never realize it. At first glance, you only see a tall, brazen man with a masterful personality. Born Harold George Belafonte Jr., in 1927, [Harry’s] life was all but glitz and glamour offstage.

Belafonte Unauthorized: A Shared Humanity is a rhythmic autobiographical stage performance of living legend Harry Belafonte–famously dubbed the ‘King of Calypso’ for his Caribbean musical style.  The one-man show is written and performed by actor Austen Jaye and directed by Iona Morris. The dynamic narrative shares the story of Belafonte’s rise to stardom from humble beginnings growing up impoverished in a segregated New York during the depression–but also, exposes a hidden dark past of painful relationships, racial confusion, survivor’s remorse and tragedy he often endured as a black entertainer.

July 14th, Jaye took center stage in front of a packed Barnsdall Gallery Theatre—bearing a striking resemblance to a younger Belafonte—and energized the crowd with his up-tempo opening number Man Smart (Woman Smarter) from Belafonte’s breakout album Calypso. Donning a partially unbuttoned silk shirt, he exuded Belafonte’s swanky, yet passionate demeanor clenching his fists and thrusting his pelvis as he belted out the song to engaged spectators.

As quickly as he swept the audience away with his playful rendition, the excitement soon fizzled, as the entertainer’s actual 1950’s reality of racial tension, lynchings, and social injustice framed the productions backdrop.

Belafonte is sought out, by a friend, to help financially support the southern voter registration campaign of the Civil Rights Movement following the murders of three activists by Klansman.  It was the call that sparked his social activism along with the reverberating words of his mother “Never go to sleep knowing you could have fought for justice during the day, and you didn’t do it.”

Belafonte often felt excluded from black culture with his Caribbean heritage and Euro-centric features. With family and success in mind, he secretly desired to “pass” to escape the tumultuous black experience.

Sometimes pacing, other times, perched at the edge of a chair. Jaye did an exceptional job expressing Belafonte’s inner-conflicts with family, success, and racism by delivering his pain through intense gazes at audience, furrowed brows, rounded posture and occasional tears. It was like staring into a mirror reflecting upon my own struggles with colorism and toxic relationships.  Belafonte’s attempt at bearing a false identity weighed heavy on his conscience as he found himself constantly vying for the affection of his mother, first wife Marguerite, and black audience.

Jaye’s performance was layered with comical impersonations, almost convincingly–channeling the likes of Belafonte’s mother, wives and notables such as friends Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Sidney Poitier. These relationships served as constant reminders that no matter how high he rose to fame, he’d never disappear from the black struggle, especially after the assassination of his dear friend Martin. Jaye paid homage to the late civil rights leader by performing a snippet of Abraham, Martin, and John.

Inhabiting the mind and mannerisms of one of the most successful black entertainers and social activists alive is no easy task. Jaye showcased this electrifying message with quirky charm, even accidentally slipping on stage, but did it so fluidly, that it looked scripted. He bounced to his feet and continued the scene as if nothing happened.

The show ended with Jaye’s dramatic performance of Banana Boat Song (Day O), one of Belafonte’s most famed selections—earning him a well-deserved standing ovation.

Aside from this single-leg performance, Jaye has completed three runs of this show since April 2016, each time with growing audiences and improved venues. Over the span of year, the show has increased from an intimate audience of 30 members to nearly 300. The future of this production looks very promising, as Jaye continues to mature as an actor and dedicates himself to the reprise of this role. If I know Austen, and I think I do, his next run at Belafonte Unauthorized will be even more amazing.

Live. Bless. Prosper.


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