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SEASON 9 - 2002

The Phonograph

June 14 - July 7, 2002 

Our Black Classic Series presentation The Phonograph continues our season theme of family. 

There is no better way to look at the Black family than to visit 1930s Harlem, where many African Americans came in search of a better life. 



"The Phonograph" presented by Towne Street Theatre


By any standard, life in Harlem in the 1930s was not wonderful. Yet, though the Depression had hit hard, many of the inhabitants were feeling the drizzle-down from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, with its emerging poets, novelists, musicians, and actors. And there was hope, especially for those who saw a better life around the corner. Such a man was Hank Kellogg, who had walked from the South to start a family in what he knew was a better world. Illiterate and edgy, he was determined to raise a family that he could be proud of. Several miles south, Clifford Odets' family in Awake and Sing was going through many of the same pains, the same emotional hurdles. 


The story of the Kelloggs is told by Paul, the eldest son, speaking in the 1960s, in the form of a memory play. The memories are real and touching: mother Ellie's sore knees from scrubbing floors, younger brother Larry's kittenish and often selfish cavorting, Hank's determined fight to stay away from heavy drink, Paul's youthful struggle for an education. The event that turns the family inside out is the moment when youngest son Billy is found to be totally blind. Each member of the group deals with it in his own way, with his own strengths, and Loften Mitchell's play paints an honest and refreshing picture of their need and eventual ability to survive. Mitchell, perhaps best known as the author of Bubbling Brown Sugar, is one of the notable writers to rise in the fallout of the Harlem Renaissance; he is thankfully remembered in this production, part of Towne Street Theatre's Black Classics Series. 


This is strong writing lovingly staged by director Elizabeth Bell-Haynes with vibrant tempi and natural rhythms. A number of strong performances help immensely. Veronica Thompson's Ellie is as real as she can be, honest and forthright. Thompson also has a very powerful moment at the news of her son's disability that is shattering. As Hank, Dan Martin is a rock of solidity, strong when he should be strong and very vulnerable when that is Hank's way. As the sons, Trevor Gordon's portrait of a young man teetering on the edge of growing up is touching, Steven A. Henry never goes overboard with Larry's youthfulness and is very effective, and young Christopher Richardson couldn't be better as the blind youngest son. In the supporting cast, mention has to be made of Stan Sellers' Ethiopian Mr. Watson, who comments comedically on the vagaries of the "American Negro," and Ernie King's droll tippler, Mr. Harmon.



Loften Mitchell's loving depiction of a black family in 1930s Harlem calls to mind both Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing. Hank Kellogg (Dan Martin) is a proud, rigid man whose traditional ideal of paternal responsibility is at war with Depression-era realities. His wife, Ellie (Veronica Thompson), must therefore be the one who faces and copes with adversity. Their differences get them into lacerating fights, but there's never any doubt of their love for each other, and for their four sons. Hank's job and health are both precarious, and eldest son Paul (Rico E. Anderson) loses the girl he loves (Leslie Miller) to a wealthier man. But it's the onset of blindness in young Billy (Christopher Richardson) that pushes the family to the breaking point. Mitchell's use of Paul as narrator sometimes leads him into sententiousness, but he has a sure hand in dealing with the scenes of family and neighborhood life, and director Elizabeth Bell-Haynes knows the milieu and renders it faithfully. Thompson shines as the ferociously loving wife/mother, and the rest of the cast offers solid support. Nathaniel Bellamy provides a simple but effective set and lighting, and a sound design that incorporates period blues and pop. 



This presentation by the Towne Street Theatre is an inspiring look at the lives of a strong, loving, volatile African American family in 1930's Harlem. Poor, hardworking, and deeply bonded in the Lord and each other, they struggle for answers when their youngest son loses his sight. 


Written in the 1960's by Loften Mitchell, this poignant drama, with lots of love and real life humor, offers a wonderful journey for the audience. 


The story opens in the 60's as Paul, the oldest son, (played passionately by Trevor Gordon) takes us back in time, to the heart wrenching saga of his own family in the 30's. 


Under the thoughtful direction of Elizabeth Bell-Haynes, this cast really takes us this slice of life play. In appealing period costumes by Joan Francis, we become a part of the Kellogg family joys, sorrows, and strength and leave with a lot to ponder about the power of family. 


There are plenty of life lessons in this touching script. Richly strong and heartfelt performances by Veronica Thompson, (Ellie) and Dan Martin, (Hank) as the parents and fine work too, by LeShay Tominlinson, as Paul's longtime lady love. 

The rest of this dedicated expressive cast includes: Christopher Richardson, Steve A. Henry, Stan Sellers, Susan Fisher, Ernie King, Ian Starks, and Peter Jackson. 


For me, the beauty of theatre is the opportunity that gives us to explore people, lifestyles, and situations, we may not otherwise experience... which is certainly the case here. 

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