Martinsburg High School celebrates theater, music and other arts of the Harlem Renaissance

March 28, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Aaron Robinson plays Wiley, left, and Brenden Dozier plays the Hairy Man in an adaptation of "Wiley and the Hairy Man," a traditional Southern folk tale. "Wiley and the Hairy Man" was passed from generation to generation until it was written down in the 1930s. The play will be staged Saturday by Martinsburg High School during the school's Harlem Nights celebration.
Submitted photo

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — In the 1920s, something special was happening in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.

Poets, novelists, musicians and painters forged a cultural revolution — one that was measured in rhythm and rhyme, theater productions, art exhibits and the development of literary luminaries such as Dorothy West.

The curtain rose on the Harlem Renaissance, a historic period that produced some of the brightest minds of the 20th century. It continued into the 1930s and would become one of the most intensively studied periods in the history of black life in America — the subject of books, lectures and documentaries.

Almost a century later, the scope of its importance hasn’t been forgotten. At Martinsburg High School, for example, students have been learning all aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, thanks to a grant provided by the Eastern West Virginia Community Foundation.

The school will celebrate the Harlem Renaissance with Harlem Nights, a multimedia event open to the public from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Martinsburg High School.

From fine arts and history classes to marketing and advertising courses, students have immersed themselves in what was then considered a cultural explosion.

It all came about thanks to the efforts of Elaine Unnone, an art teacher at Martinsburg High School. Several years ago, Unnone attended an exhibition at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that featured the work of Romare Bearden, an important artist from the Harlem Renaissance period.

“I didn’t know much about his work at the time,” she admitted. “But I was truly inspired by his work and his participation in the renaissance.”

While attending a workshop last year that was specifically geared for the Arts in Education Grant, Unnone said she decided to apply for a grant with the Harlem Renaissance as her focus.

“I knew this cultural arts movement covered all of the fine arts and could also be integrated into U.S. history and language arts,” she said. “Also, we are the most ethnically diverse high school in West Virginia, and I felt it was important for my students to learn about people like Romare Bearden and the Harlem Renaissance, in general.”

According to Unnone, teachers at Martinsburg High School have incorporated the Harlem Renaissance into their lesson plans.

“I have personally read some of the lessons, and I’ve seen the work produced by the students,” she said. “These teachers have gone above and beyond to create a sense of importance with this topic.”

As part of the project, Unnone said she asked the foundation for iPads “because I knew we could use the technology in each classroom that could meet their unique needs. I call the iPads the hook that reels my students into learning. They love using the technology and are fascinated with what can be discovered along the way.”

Unnone said one of the lessons she used with the iPad was using Google maps to take a walking tour of Harlem and an interactive tour of the Romare Bearden exhibit at The National Gallery of Art.

The school also has undertaken a cultural exchange with Harlem Renaissance High School in New York City. Martinsburg’s Good Times Show Choir — the 2012 West Virginia state show choir champions — traveled to New York City. And some students from Harlem Renaissance High School will be in Martinsburg on Saturday to talk about their school and community during Harlem Nights, which will also feature a variety of performances from local students.

“We will feature the Martinsburg Good Times Show Choir, performing numbers inspired by music of that period,” Unnone said. “Our school choir also will be performing and the jazz band will perform music very specific to Harlem from that time.”

In addition, there will be a dance number inspired by artists of the era. Visual arts classes will have displays. The school’s photography class has done a portrait project that highlights how culturally diverse the country has become since the Harlem Renaissance.

The school’s theater troupe will perform “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” a play inspired by a folk story from the South. History classes have produced social studies projects and digital media projects based on the period and the people involved.

Language arts classes were inspired by the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and will display special projects. Several students will be reading poetry.

And there will be refreshments.

“We will have finger foods that will have the taste of Harlem,” Unnone said.

The school’s community partner, Shepherd University, will have several presentations prepared by staff and students, including Job Corps students who will give information about how the Harlem Renaissance played out in Washington, D.C.

Unnone said Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library also will be participating and will be presenting some of the important literature of the movement. Student ambassadors have also spoken about the project to community groups, including the NAACP and the County Diversity Committee, Unnone said.

“Word also has spread to local churches and the buzz has been totally positive,” she said. “It has been so well received, both here at Martinsburg High School and around the community.”

Unnone said more than 200 students will be participating and volunteering for Harlem Nights. In total, 1,200 students have discovered the Harlem Renaissance through classroom lessons and school club activities.

If you go ...       

WHAT: Harlem Nights

WHEN: 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 31

WHERE: Martinsburg High School, 701 S. Queen St., Martinsburg, W.Va.

COST: Free

CONTACT: Call 304-267-3530 or at

MORE: Tickets are limited

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