—By Miles Marshall Lewis. Follow MML on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter at @furthermucker.
A staple of the season since 2005, the Apollo Spring Gala stands as one of Harlem’s hottest tickets. A fundraising benefit for the Apollo Theater, the night always begins with a scintillating set of live performances on its legendary stage and ends with a tented spectacle of dance, high fashion and high spirits stretching ’til midnight. (Tonight’s 12th annual gala features superstars Sheila E and Charlie Wilson alongside newcomers Wé McDonald and Trombone Shorty.) Apollo CEO/president Jonelle Procope spoke with Experience Harlem to discuss the gala and take us through the theater’s 2017-18 programming season.
Everyone’s excited over Sheila E taking the stage at the Apollo Spring Gala. Did Prince ever perform at the Apollo?
Oh God. Prince played the Apollo in 1993 for a special VH1 concert, and then he made several appearances at the theater throughout the years. Most recently he made a surprise visit for the Apollo’s 75th anniversary spring gala in 2009. And he came because he wanted to help induct Patti LaBelle into the Walk of Fame. He held a press conference at the theater in 2012 for his Welcome 2 America tour, and then he would come to see performances from time to time. I have to say, my only regret is that we didn’t get him for one of his late night jam sessions at the Apollo. He’s such a genius. Really really really miss him. But he did leave behind such incredible music, so he’ll never be forgotten.
Tell us about the programs funded by the annual gala.
The funds from the gala fund a number of things. Basically, it funds everything that we do on our stage. First of all, it benefits the Apollo’s education and community programs, which extend the theater’s commitment to serving as a resource and a gathering place for our community. Our education programs include events for schoolchildren and families, career development for teens and adults. The Apollo has always been a gathering place. So in current times, we focus on that through something that we call our Uptown Hall series. These are sessions on culturally specific issues integral to the Harlem community and history.
Funds raised from the gala also support our signature programs. Iconic events such as our amateur night at the Apollo, which has been going since we opened our doors in 1934 every Wednesday night; our Apollo Music Café; our Apollo Comedy Club. These are things that take place on our side soundstage.
You know, I want the people to think, “Wow, it’s a Thursday night. I wanna go out. I think I’m gonna go to the Apollo Comedy Club.” Or, “It’s Friday night or Saturday night. What’s going on? I’m going up to the Apollo and I’m gonna catch the music.” The Apollo Music Café focuses on artists who are sort of under the radar. These are artists who have their own following, and they can be from the New York vicinity or places like New Orleans or Atlanta. But we’re giving them an opportunity to showcase their talent, and that’s very much connected to the Apollo’s legacy of creating opportunities for emerging artists.
Last year, the Apollo brought aboard Kamilah Forbes as executive producer. What’s she been cooking up?
The funds we raise from the gala also support our rich programming. This will be our sixth full season of programming at the Apollo, the first year from our new executive producer Kamilah Forbes. There’s a multimedia production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning Between the World and Me. It’s actually directed by Kamilah and features music commissioned by Jason Moran, who’s a MacArthur Genius. We’ve worked with him before; he did the soundtrack for Selma and 13th, the documentary.
We’re gonna feature the New York premiere of a genre-defying opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, which looks back at the 1985 bombing of the MOVE organization headquarters in Philadelphia. Then we have the multimedia live music performance Soundtrack of ’63, which really takes us back in time to a cultural, artistic retrospective from 1963 to present-day Black Lives Matter movement.
Could you break down this year’s Apollo gala musical performances?
This year we have CeeLo Green. Just a few weeks before, we had a reading on the stage of Ladykiller’s Love Story, a play based on the CeeLo album The Lady Killer. It’s something we think is an exciting project and may have a future. It’ll be workshopped, it may come back, and hopefully go on to regional theater or off-Broadway.
We have Sheila E. She’s just an amazing talent, and certainly she brings notoriety with her association with Prince. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform last year and just thought she was really amazing. The thing that’s so interesting about the Apollo is the Apollo audience. They participate in it, so when they come to a concert, they’re up on their feet really having a great time and embracing the artist’s performance. So we hope Sheila E. will do that. The thing about Prince was, there were also really cool women in his band. There was Wendy [Melvoin] and there was Sheila E. So I’m excited to have her.
And then there’s Charlie Wilson. That’ll hopefully whip us into a frenzy with a lot of the hits from the Gap Band and things that we still dance to, like “Outstanding.” And we have Trombone Shorty, who is a really great performer, another one who’s gonna get people hyped up. He’s actually gonna lead the crowd out at the end into a second line, for folks who understand the traditions of New Orleans, that’ll lead us to where our party is following the gala.
We always focus on an emerging talent, that’s very much a part of the Apollo DNA. Wé McDonald is a young performer who’s performed on amateur night. She was also a contestant on The Voice, and she is an alumna from the Harlem School of the Arts—another renowned institution in the Harlem community. We’re all cultural organizations who are supportive of one another, and we love having very talented students from Harlem School of the Arts. She’s amazing, a real talent. She’s a force and you’re gonna be hearing from her. And Cedric the Entertainer’s our MC, so what can I say? It’s gonna be a fabulous night.