Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Entertainment Harlem, directed and produced by John Decker, perfectly contextualizes, and captures the magic of Marjorie Eliot and the free theatre and jazz shows she has been putting on in the small, white living room of her Harlem apartment every Sunday for the last 30 years.
The title screen fades in, accompanied by upbeat jazz music, courtesy of Eliot on piano (and later, Rudel Drears), Nick Mauro on trumpet, and Sedric Choukroun on clarinet. Their joyful music plays throughout the documentary. However, within only a few minutes, we are able to understand that Eliot’s shows go beyond music; Eliot centers nearly every aspect of her show around community and love.
Eliot began performing musical shows in her apartment after the death of her son Philip in 1992. Fourteen years later her son Michael died, and after another nine years, her son Alfred died. Eliot sees these shows as a logical way to celebrate and honor her sons, who had grown up on music and theatre. We see a black and white photo insert of Eliot playing the piano underneath a framed photo of her son on the wall, illustrating that he is always in Eliot’s artistic space in some form.
Eliot also feels moved by the music and community created by her black ancestors who were enslaved and aims to honor them in her performances. She credits her ancestors for the music and calls them “a miracle”. We see and hear her recite a poem, accompanied by Choukroun on the flute, about African American boys who were hanged.
Elliot expresses gratitude for and even credits the community in her audience just for understanding her. She says, “Having it received by people who don't look like me is extraordinary not because of me, because of them.” A black and white photo insert of about seven white children sitting in rows of chairs, entranced by the Black and Asian performers in the front of the room, is a very moving image. It signifies the importance of diversity, especially in the arts, and learning about history and culture. Eliot says that her audience takes her story and makes the sadness “now joyous”.
Eliot’s shows are open to the public at no cost, allowing everyone to enter the audience and feel welcome. Beyond that, we can see clips of Eliot’s wall filled with hundreds of faces on hanging pictures, newspaper clippings, posters of/from her loved ones and role models, hand-written letters, drawings, and sheet music. Even the walls, structures which are designed to enclose and block off areas, have been used to enable community and culture, and foster love and acceptance in Eliot’s home.
Eliot makes her musicians feel welcomed and loved too. “The parlor is a very special place because Marjorie makes it a very special place. She makes everybody feel very welcome,” says Mauro. Choukroun says, “It’s the two things that I need the most, which is love and playing music.” Throughout the documentary, we see both photo inserts that are in black and white and in color of different musicians who have performed at Eliot’s home over the last 30 years. It is so special that new people can hear about Elliot’s shows from outside sources and then decide to partake in the tradition that has been around for so many years before them.
Eliot admits that artists are a little more crazy than other people, but a good kind of crazy. Maybe she is crazy for allowing strangers into her home every Sunday for the last 30 years, but by doing so, she has created something so beautiful and moving to watch and partake in.
Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment Harlem screens at the Spring 2023 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, January 28 as part of the Short Program #1. The films will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 5PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. To buy tickets go here.
For General Info on the Film Festival go here: https://newjerseyfilmfestivalspring2023.eventive.org/welcome
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