Reid’s biographical debut ventures into the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance through the life of his grandfather Leonard Harper.
Reid scoured historical archives to write this full account of Harper as a theater performer, choreographer, director and producer. Born the son of a poor singer in Birmingham, Ala., Harper performed on the street for pennies as a child. He became a talented performer, and after his father died, he studied soft-shoe in an effort to provide for his family. Reid writes of his grandfather at age 10: He “was now a first-class dancer who could tap rings around most of the adults and veteran masters. In other words, young Harper be boggity-boggity.” Reid continues with similarly charming turns of phrase as he shares the details of Harper’s exploits. Young Harper traveled with vaudeville shows until he found his way to New York, where he went solo at 16. By his early 20s, he found himself at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, and he worked with such legends as Duke Ellington, Florence Mills, Thomas “Fats” Waller and Louis Armstrong. Reid provides a straightforward account of the era’s racial tensions, with white producers often swindling Harper and his fellow African-American theater professionals out of the rights to their works. However, Harper was resourceful enough to successfully stage dozens of shows. Reid chronicles his barrier-breaking achievements, including his 1929 debut of Hot Chocolates, an African-American production that received great acclaim on Broadway. Though the book is full of praise for Harper, Reid also recounts his grandfather’s extramarital affairs and some of the more colorful stories of gangsters and burlesque dancers in the Harlem nightclub scene. While an unfortunate number of grammatical errors and clumsy run-on sentences distract from Reid’s careful research, dedicated theater and history buffs will happily brave the copy editing morass to access the wealth of information Reid has unearthed.
An entertaining biography that circles the theater and taps into an important cultural movement.