Voza Rivers—A Man for All Seasons
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By Herb Boyd
Voza Rivers, this son of Harlem, has committed himself unselfishly as a cultural ambassador to his beloved Harlem. When one Googles Voza Rivers, you go gaga over his multifaceted career, and you will be simply overwhelmed by the range and depth of his commitments, each one more beguiling and bedazzling than the next in its complexity and far-reaching implications.
For example, just the other night at the South African Consulate Voza was part of a Black History Month tribute to the late Nelson Mandela in which he talked about the coming attractions for this year’s 40th anniversary of Harlem Week, an event where he has been a key producer and coordinator since its inception.
When the evening concluded Voza must have felt right at home at the consulate as he fielded questions and comments from a coterie of friends, admirers, and particularly the embassy officials, some he has known ever since he produced “Woza Albert!,” in 1984 in Harlem at the New Heritage Theatre on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. This production was Harlem’s first South African play in the community and the actors captured the bare racist obscenities of apartheid.
This production was followed two years later by the award winning Asinamali!“ (Zulu word for we have no money) and a year later was produced on Broadway by the distinguished Harry Belafonte. Getting more deeply in South African culture Voza and his team in conjunction with Lincoln Center presented the award winning South African Broadway musical “Sarafina!,” dedicated to the resiliency and spirit of Nelson Mandela, as seen through the eyes of South African students.
And to cite the many shows he’s watched go on would exhaust the boundaries of this profile but there are a few that cannot be ignored when summarizing his adventurous odyssey that began in Harlem and has branched out to his beloved South Africa and the Diaspora.
Voza, throws his whole self into a production, much as he did in the beginning of his theater career in 1964, working with the late playwright, director, set designer and a member of the 1940’s American Negro Theater Roger Furman. It’s not easy for Voza Rivers, this “man of all seasons” to limit his involvement in a venture, and it’s a good thing that he possesses both the versatility and the perspicuity to know when to take a step back and let the show go on.
Voza thanks his Harlem producing team Andre Robinson and, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, and his South African producing team Duma Ndlovu and Mbongeni Ngema for navigating the South African productions with him, because no one could have taken the responsibility of producing black South African theater without assistance in Harlem during the 1980’s and early 90’s.
Living just around the corner from him in Harlem, I get a chance to see him move through the community, sometimes vying with him for a parking space, bumping into him on the streets at the stores and newsstands, watching as he struggles to get from one point to another without the invariable interruptions from neighbors who want to know about the next event, the next show.
In 2008 there was a critical mass of attention when New Heritage’s IMPACT Repertory Theater, a company co-founded by Voza Rivers and Jamal Joseph, received an Academy Award nomination for their performance of an original song co-composed by Joseph, and IMPACT members . “I give all the credit to Jamal and IMPACT,” Voza said at that time. “They have demonstrated that they have the talent and dedication in performance after performance, and obviously I’m very proud of them.”
At a recent meeting at the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, virtually Voza’s second home, he rushed in from another session, grabbed a seat, and took out his notebook, and began cramming it with the words that tumbled out of Lloyd Williams’ mouth. To see the two of them in action is to see two men joined at the spine; theirs is an old and unbreakable relationship that goes back to their teen years coming of age in Harlem.
The issue at that moment was about an upcoming event at the Apollo Theatre in which they were wrapping their arms around the format of presentations, who would get the awards, and who would perform. All of these factors are right in Voza’s wheelhouse, so to speak, and he dispatched them with his usual aplomb, a carefully considered processing, and making sure each response to his partner was measured with just the right tone and insight to assure that he had everything under control.
This is the same thoughtful weighing he gives to the agenda at the New Heritage Theater, a role he inherited from the founder, and it’s certainly how he patiently finalizes plans each year for Harlem Week, the Harlem Arts Alliance, the Harlem Jazz & Music Festival.
Over the past 50 years, Voza has produced more than 1500 events and has touched thousands of performers, artists, leaders of institutions, and young people looking for an opportunity to showcase their talent. “It’s something I relish and look forward to each day,” he said when asked about his rigorous routine. He seemed to suggest there’s a certain rhythm that must be tapped, a certain way of juggling the countless duties, lest one fall from your grasp.
Dropping the ball is not an option for Voza, and this is true whether he’s in the midst of organizing a benefit or fundraiser, scheduling a film documentary, lining up performers for a theater production, or setting up a meeting for the various mavens of art in New York City.