Voza Rivers, the executive producer of the Harlem Week Festival and founding member of New Heritage Theatre Group, has helped shape and influence Harlem through arts and theatre.
The Harlem-born and raised grandson of immigrants from Jamaica has been considered one of the go-to-people for theater and cultural arts from all around the world.
Rivers enjoyed his childhood in the streets of Harlem. He remembers former U.S Representative Charles Rangel and literary icon and civil rights activist James Baldwin who lived in the same town.
“As a kid just growing up in this community, I was able to understand the importance of the reputation of Harlem—being a special place,” Rivers said, reminiscing on his childhood memories.
Rivers acknowledged his elementary teacher, taking him and his classmates to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture once a week. In those trips, learned more about African-American achievements that helped shape the person he is today.
“That began the foundation of what I do today,” he said. “It has the largest repertory of black literature and culture in the United States.”
Rivers grew fond of Harlem as he dedicated his life to theater. Roger Furman, founder of the New Heritage Theatre Group, the city’s oldest black nonprofit theater, introduced Rivers to theater.
Rivers wanted to help Furman with his mission to maintain and strengthen classic works of black theater. Although he didn’t join the company to be an actor, he was able to help run theater operations and behind-the-scenes performance.
Rivers became more involved in theater as he went along. He had the opportunity to run the box office, handle maintenance and buy props.
“He had me buy props with him, he showed me how to paint sets and how to focus lights,” he said.
Eventually, Rivers took the position as executive producer of the theater group, after Furman’s death. He wanted the theater to bring a cultural platform to the community and to concentrate more on the artistic side of plays.
An Artistic Foundation
Furman introduced Rivers to South African theater, and over the three decades they worked together, Rivers became a part of the foundation of African American theater.
His plays has received Tony and Grammy nomination, including South African plays “Asinimali!” and “Sarafina!”
He has worked on numerous plays, including the Obie Award winner “Woza Albert!” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
He also produced music events and concerts featuring well-known artists including James Brown, Ruby Dee, Nancy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton.
Rivers says art is important to society. He created Harlem Festival in 1974 as a tribute to the Harlem residents who stayed in their neighborhood through the tough times. He wanted to bring the community together and to help create a safe environment.
“Harlem was at its lowest end,” he said. The ’70s were rife with illness, drug addiction, poor housing conditions—infant mortality rates and crime rates were the highest in the city. About a third of residents left the neighborhood, and two thirds of those remaining had annual household incomes below $10,000.
“People were leaving the community and there was an epidemic of drugs and abandonment of properties.”
Yet, it was also a time when people could sense the oncoming of an arrival.
The one-day festival event turned to a month, and created an influx of people in the town.
“We needed to get people to come out of their homes and to talk to their neighbors,” Rivers said.
Rivers, who has been living in Harlem for more than 40 years, sees more and more people attending the annual event.
More than 40,000 people attended this year’s festival to celebrate the uptown neighborhood’s past, present and future.
“All of us work together to contributing our resources to the community,” he said. “We have become care takers of our culture in a magnificent way. People from all over the world know about Harlem and the festival that we created.”
Rivers said he is looking forward to continue directing and producing plays and to prosper his deep love and connection for Harlem.
“I love the people of Harlem,” he said. “I’m excited about walking down the streets and people saying to me ‘you know I saw that play and it was wonderful.’”