Reckoning With the Past in Days of Old by Joy Russell

When I started thinking about “Days of Old,” I was curious about how one engages with the past and how easily it becomes fossilized and disconnected from the present – a certain dysfunctional nostalgia that stunts. I confess I have found myself lured into that landscape until it was an impediment to being in the here and now. Who hasn’t? Then I began to imagine the conversations that might take place between characters with different agendas, complications and discomforts around these time zones. I asked what history would look like as a dynamic organism, a verb fully living in the present.

The important and necessary work that is taking place around Hogan’s Alley has involved the process of excavating histories and giving them a palpable and undeniable presence in the city’s psyche. Particularly important, I think, given the number of times people have commented they were unaware that there was, in fact, a black community concentrated in the Hogan’s Alley area in the past. It is an ongoing task pushing this historical presence into the city’s narrative and making visible where erasures previously existed.

From my observations, there seems to be two distinct camps that engage with the black community that lived in the Hogan’s Alley area: those with a direct, first-hand lived experience of the community and its places, and those of us who are visitors and listeners, retrievers, collectors and gatherers of this history. There are places such as the Harlem Nocturne, The Fountain Chapel, the house that Nora Hendrix lived in, which remain, their old buildings’ skins with new occupants, names and functions, or, the part of Hogan’s Alley which has been destroyed and smoothed over with a dull, green dress of grass. The intersection between these two experiences was compelling to me for a number of reasons, including what it might suggest about generational shifts in proximity to memory.

These questions kept itching – I had to scratch and find a way to embody them in the play and characters. In writing “Days of Old” I haven’t come up with any definitive answers or tied everything up with a pretty bow, but certainly have sharpened my thought that how we hold history tells us something about what our future might look like, how we forget tells us how we walk in the present.

Here’s more information on Hogan’s Alley.

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