Low and static wages. An ever widening pay gap. Ever decreasing work opportunities. Mass immigration. Political tension. Urban overcrowding. Social and economic exclusion from highbrow urban culture. Sound familiar?
This was the socio-economic landscape of 1920s America following a mass influx of immigration to cities like New York and Chicago after WWI. As culture and industry boomed, the rich became richer and the poor became poorer and landlords seized the opportunity to send inner city rents through the roof.
Working class 1920s America was a rather less fabulous place than we like to remember.
The famously flamboyant, extravagant parties and avant garde cultural gatherings that we fondly remember today as the ‘Harlem Renaissance‘ were actually largely reserved to a very select few in the upper echelons of society.
The cleaners and carpenters, shop assistants and industry workers saw no Renaissance other than that of crippling debt. Working class 1920s America was a rather less fabulous place than we like to remember.
The rent party was the working class answer to the exclusive extravagance of American urban high life.
The rent party was the working class answer to the exclusive extravagance of American urban high life. They were gritty, risque, boisterous and raucous and welcomed everyone, no matter your class, race, sexuality or status.
The concept was a simple one. Tenants would open their homes for an evening of dancing and socialising, charging 20 cents to a dollar on entry and typically selling Southern ‘soul food’ and illegal bootlegged alcohol. Throughout the 20s and 30s these parties kept many struggling workers afloat and subsidised much of the inner cities’ extortionate rents. They also created a brief but thriving counter culture at a time when the arts was a strictly bourgeois affair.
From the rent parties was born a new mode of urban music and dance evolving from the thriving jazz scene of the early 20th century. But most importantly a new mode of neighbourly socialising in which flirting and conversation transcended the everyday barriers of race, sexuality and identity. Rent parties offered momentary escapes from the harsh realities of American working life.
Tenants would advertise their parties on small discrete cards each with short signature lines of poetry;
“You can wake up the devil, raise all Hell; no one will be there to go home and tell.”
“We got yellow girls, we’ve got black and tan. Will you have a good time, YEAH MAN!”
In many ways, what rent parties stood for then is just as relevant now. And with hosts Darren Pritchard, Sonia Hughes and Cheryl Martin at the helm, being broke never looked so fierce!
In 1920s Harlem, African Americans faced unfairly high rents – so they threw wild jazz parties to make money before the rent collector came knocking.
Meet the dancer bringing them to the UK. pic.twitter.com/UGf10JCo3t
— BBC Stories (@bbcstories) August 21, 2018
Wed 10 Oct – Sat 13 Oct
£15 / £10 Concessions.
Presented by Contact, Darren Pritchard Dance and Black Gold Arts Festival, commissioned by Homotopia, co-produced by Sheffield Theatres, and supported by STUN, Contact’s RENT PARTY reinvigorates the energy of being young, black, gifted and poor in 1920s America, relocated in a modern Manchester setting.