Tamara Tunie co-wrote and directs 'Jazzland: in Concert.'

Tamara Tunie co-wrote and directs 'Jazzland: in Concert.'

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Producer, director and actress Tamara Tunie spoke exclusively to AXS about "JAZZLAND: in Concert," a stirring musical inspired by Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." The project is a community effort, presented by Harlem School of the Arts in partnership with Harlem Stage and the Manhattan School of Music, and is an extraordinary take on the literary classic. "JAZZLAND" stars an African-American Alice struggling to find her place in her community during the Harlem Renaissance. Met with a tremendous response and ovations from theatergoers at its debut, the musical's final performances are this weekend at The Harlem School of the Arts. Read on as Tamara discusses how "JAZZLAND" came into her life.

TAMARA TUNIE: My co-writer on this, Charles Leipart-- we had done a few projects together. He's a wonderful playwright and he's written a couple of musicals that I've workshopped with him. I was producing one of his other musicals, and then he approached me about this idea of an animated feature inspired by "Alice in Wonderland" but takes place in Harlem in the 1930s. A 12-year-old Alice who is African-American is in search of herself, and in search of her voice, and in search of how she fits in the world. The idea of using the characters from "Alice in Wonderland" to create new and even more interesting characters to tell this story really appealed to me. 

We began developing an animated feature with this in mind. Then we brought in Eric Reed, the wonderful jazz pianist, to be the composer on the project. He and I have been friends for many years and he loved the idea, so he stepped up to compose the music. Scott Crockett who was our fourth partner-- we call ourselves "The Sugar Hill Four"-- he began drawing and illustrating what these characters might look like. Whenever we would share the demo of some of the songs that we had written and people would read the story, they would think it was a Broadway musical. We were saying, "No, it's not a Broadway musical right now, it's an animated feature. Maybe someday it could be a Broadway musical." Last summer, Charlie and Scott came to me and said, "What if we were to adapt it and theatricalize it and make it a stage musical, but do it with children? Find a not-for-profit that's an arts and education   program that focuses on kids, and maybe approach them about developing it with them?" I thought it was a brilliant idea. 

Naturally, Harlem School of the Arts was the first thing to come to my mind because I live in Harlem. I reached out to Eric Pryor, who is the president of the school, and sent him a one-page synopsis of the story and a couple of the songs that we had demoed. He brought Alfred Preisser in, who's head of the theater department there. At the same time, Harlem Stage-- which is a premier performing arts center uptown-- and Harlem School of the Arts have been looking for something to partner on. As arts communities in Harlem, we are always looking for ways to partner and to bring organizations together. We don't feel in any way competitive against each other. So, I reached out to Pat Cruz at Harlem Stage and proposed a meeting. 

Then, both Harlem Stage and Harlem School of the Arts have a relationship with Manhattan School of Music. Then the thought became, "Well, what if the musicians were pulled from Manhattan School of Music?" So Alfred Preisser reached out to Stefon Harris, who's head of the jazz department there. This is how the pieces and the partnerships were formed.

When we were writing "JAZZLAND,"  we were all talking about when we were kids and our first exposure to classical music or jazz was actually through cartoons, through "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies." And so our goal was to create an animated feature to expose children to the beautiful music of jazz, and in our show, we have every type of genre of jazz there is. We have blues, we have swing, we have Latin jazz. We're really trying to cover all the pieces. A lot of these characters in "JAZZLAND" are not only inspired by the characters from "Alice in Wonderland," but they're also inspired by some of the jazz greats. We have Mr. Whitey, who's a trumpet player, and certainly, that could be Louie Armstrong. And the Red Queen, who is a brilliant scat singer, could be Ella Fitzgerald. So we hope to be able to expand and share more music with the kids, not just the music in the show but also to show them where some of these songs were derived from.

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Watch Tamara Tunie in the AMC dark comedy series "Dietland," premiering June 4, and the upcoming Netflix and BBC thriller "Black Earth Rising." Remaining dates for "JAZZLAND: in Concert" are May 18-20 at the Harlem School of the Arts Theater. For tickets and more information, click here