Photo by Ruth Morgan
Founder/CEO, The H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players (1979- )
“Our mission is to provide Harlem with professional theater at affordable prices.”
In 1933 Gertrude Jeannette arrived in New York City from Little Rock, Arkansas stammering so severely that she could barely complete a sentence. At the suggestion of Fred O’Neal, a fellow student at the WPA Business School in Harlem, she decided to take a speech class held by the American Negro Theater (ANT).
“I really only wanted to take a speech course but when I went there they told me I had to take everything—acting, dance, breathing exercises and set and lighting design. Fred O’Neal, who was a founding member of ANT, hadn’t told me all that.”
From that rather hesitant beginning, Miss Jeannette, who celebrated her 90th birthday on November 28, 2004 and is an inductee into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, went on to become the Grand Dame of Harlem Theater. At ANT she studied and performed with fellow artists such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Rosetta LeNoire, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.
“Sidney probably wouldn’t have stayed with ANT if I hadn’t persuaded him to do so,” Miss Jeannette says. “He had a strong Caribbean accent that elicited laughter from fellow students when he auditioned. Seeing that he was very upset I followed him when he left the stage and told him how students had also laughed at me because of my stammering. Do what my teacher told me to do. You laugh first. Sidney stayed and the rest is history. He sent a wonderful note and a wonderful check to my 90th birthday celebration.”
As an actress, Miss Jeannette, who is a direct connection between ANT and current black theaters, has appeared in numerous plays including several on Broadway. Her favorite role is that of Mama Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. “I’ve played her on stages throughout the country,” she says.
As a producer/director, Miss Jeannette, who has passed on artistic director responsibilities to Ajene Washington, has informed, educated and entertained audiences with first-class productions of many plays including Small Fish, Big Dreamer, Amen Sisters and The Old Settler. She is what Harlem theater is all about.