Harlem & Moscow

Episode one: The Film

Episode 1

In this true story of the Harlem Renaissance in the Soviet Union, we are introduced to the young writer and actress Dorothy West and her mother, Rachel West, who wants to hear all about her daughter’s year in Moscow making a film. Rachel is especially curious about the famous poet Langston Hughes. Dorothy promises to tell all that and more, starting with the invitation for the trip that she received from her sweetheart and local reporter, Henry Lee Moon. After failing to convince her cousin, Helene Johnson, to accompany her, Dorothy sets sail with Henry Lee and 20 other Harlemites to the other side of the world, with no idea what this new world has in store for her. 






[00:00:00] Announcer: You are now listening to theGrio Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.

[00:00:04] Narrator: Hello, you’re listening to Harlem and Moscow, an original audio play presented by theGrio Black Podcast Network. Harlem and Moscow is a six episode drama with three additional companion podcasts. Harlem and Moscow: Red Flags.

[00:00:23] Harlem and Moscow is based on a true story J. Ivy plays the role of Langston Hughes, and Evan Frazier plays the role of Dorothy West. Episode 1, The Film, features Kyla Lacy, Nancy Gilliam, and Jon Kelly. I am your narrator, commenter, and teller of tales, Jared Alexander.

[00:00:47] In the 1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was taken over New York, and baby, it was a party. Artists like Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and of course, Langston Hughes, were writing their way into history, using poetry, documentary, and essays to capture authentic Black life in America and beyond.

[00:01:10] Youngest and spunkiest among them was novelist Dorothy West, who would go on to write The Wedding and The Living is Easy. West was from a well to do family and would regularly spend summers in Oak Bluffs. The Black neighborhood of Martha’s Vineyard, which was home to people like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who encouraged West later in life to finish The Wedding.

[00:01:33] But in 1932, Dorothy West was just a Columbia student and an aspiring actress. At 25 years old, she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime. to sail the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in order to make what was meant to be a world class film. Langston Hughes, a well known communist sympathizer, but you didn’t hear it from me, would also be on board, along with political organizer and newly single, Louise Thompson, and a few of West’s friends and colleagues.

[00:02:08] The U. S. S. R. was only 10 years old and busy building their propaganda machine through innovative techniques in the exciting and emerging medium of film. They hoped to inspire a workers revolution similar to their own all over the globe, and they wanted Black Americans to be at the forefront. The group of Black artists would be leaving behind America’s party killing prohibition laws, as well as Jim Crow and racial segregation for the U.S.S.R that boasted relaxed liquor laws and expanded civil rights.

[00:02:40] An opportunity abroad for Black artists often meant better pay than they would receive from any production in America at the time. So is it any surprise that Dorothy West and 20 others said yes? I might have been on that boat myself. What followed was a story that was eventually lost to history, left to collect dust in various archives.

[00:03:01] theGrio seeks to excavate a part of the story and share Dorothy West’s point of view of the trip that almost changed the world, but would change her life forever. Turn up your volume and open your heart and mind to Harlem and Moscow.

[00:03:29] Dorothy West: Here you are, Mom. You ought to try milk in your tea. That’s how the Russians do it.

[00:03:34] Rachel West: I like my tea how I always have. I’m just happy to have you home to fix it.

[00:03:41] Dorothy West: I thought of you every day that I was abroad. No matter how fun the party or delicious the champagne, my heart was with you. Especially after, well, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.

[00:03:55] Rachel West: I’ve had wonderful people around me all year. Never a moment to myself, bless them. But never you mind that. You’re back in Oak Bluffs, just in time for the season, thank goodness. We have some new bachelors just moved to town, and you know, Helene finally got her William to propose.

[00:04:17] Dorothy West: Finally? They’ve been going together less than a year.

[00:04:21] Rachel West: It was past time. Past time for you too, now that you’ve got all of this out of your system. Now, Miss Dorothy West, traveler extraordinaire, tell me about your year in Moscow.

[00:04:37] Dorothy West: Mom, I sent you letters practically every week. I came up here to talk to you about something else, and it regards the season.

[00:04:46] Rachel West: Tell me about your trip first.

[00:04:48] From the beginning, Harlem and Moscow and Mr. Langston Hughes. Afterwards, we can talk about your plans for the summer.

[00:04:58] Dorothy West: All right, all right. I’ve hardly had any time to reflect on the trip myself. It’s just like you said, the story starts in Harlem with Henry Lee. You remember Henry Lee, the reporter for the Amsterdam?

[00:05:11] Rachel West: Henry Lee? There’s a name I haven’t heard for a bit. I thought I might see the two of you returning together. I sure hope he didn’t talk you into doing anything unladylike on this trip. Men can be very pushy. And you aren’t always the best at speaking up.

[00:05:31] Dorothy West: Mom, that is not true. I speak up.

[00:05:34] Rachel West: What about the time you sat at the ice cream counter for Five whole minutes letting your sundae melt all because you couldn’t work up the nerve to ask for a spoon.

[00:05:49] Dorothy West: I was nine years old. I’m only saying that you need to do Henry Lee did not do anything untoward. Then how come I never hear about him in your letters anymore? I’ll get to that mom. It was Saturday in Harlem. Cousin Helene was in bed sick and begged me to go volunteer at the community center in her place.

[00:06:11] I hate going to those things alone, but it gave me a chance to get out of the flat. At the center, they assigned me the task of addressing letters, so I kept to myself, writing on a desk in the corner.

[00:06:24] Narrator: At the community center, where Dorothy is writing letters, while the other volunteers are chatting it up, including Henry Lee.

[00:06:33] He is a reporter, and Dorothy’s on and off. And there’s writer, poet, drama queen, Countee Cullen. But one person is absent. Dorothy’s cousin.

[00:06:49] Volunteer Coordinator: Thank you, volunteers! I am a community center coordinator. We are so grateful so many of you came out. If you are here for a class, see me after and I’ll sign your slip.

[00:07:01] Henry Lee Moon: Uh oh! No one’s gonna be able to deliver these if we’re relying on your penmanship.

[00:07:06] Dorothy West: Henry Lee! I’m glad to see a familiar face. It’s just been me and the inkpot all morning.

[00:07:12] Henry Lee Moon: I’m part of the line licking them envelopes closed, so believe me, it could be worse.

[00:07:17] Dorothy West: Is anyone else here?

[00:07:20] Henry Lee Moon: Countee is somewhere hefting boxes.

[00:07:23] I’m sure he’s regretting volunteering for that by now. I expected to see your cousin here.

[00:07:29] Dorothy West: She wasn’t feeling well, so I left her at home in bed. If she won’t be coming, you’re just gonna have to relay a message to her.

[00:07:38] Countee Cullen: Lord! If I have to lift another goddamn box!

[00:07:42] Dorothy West: Don’t let your father hear you use that language, Countee!

[00:07:46] Countee Cullen: Dorothy, excuse me. I’ve been in the other room with the men. We can skip the hug today. I would have worn work clothes if I knew they would be requiring hard labor.

[00:08:00] Henry Lee Moon: Moving boxes from one room to another is not hard labor. Shouldn’t you be licking

[00:08:10] Dorothy West: You are both breaking my concentration.

[00:08:12] Henry Lee Moon: That’s my mistake, Miss Dorothy.

[00:08:15] I just need to borrow this.

[00:08:17] Dorothy West: Henry Lee! Give me my pen back!

[00:08:19] Henry Lee Moon: You can listen to me for two minutes, can’t you, Dot?

[00:08:22] Countee Cullen: If you two are gonna flirt, I’m leaving before I melt.

[00:08:28] Henry Lee Moon: Fine, here’s your pen, and there’s a water fountain back there, Countee.

[00:08:32] Countee Cullen: All right, all right.

[00:08:36] Dorothy West: Be nice to Countee. Things haven’t been easy for him since the divorce.

[00:08:40] Henry Lee Moon: I have just the thing to remedy that.

[00:08:42] Dorothy West: What have you got up your sleeve?

[00:08:44] Henry Lee Moon: A revolution.

[00:08:46] Countee Cullen: So, what’s this big news and why can’t I just read about it in your next column?

[00:08:52] Henry Lee Moon: Uh, here it is. Louise, you know, uh, Louise Thompson.

[00:08:58] Countee Cullen: The professor.

[00:08:59] Dorothy West: Wally’s ex wife.

[00:09:00] Henry Lee Moon: Right. She’s organizing for a movie, but Get this, they’re filming in Moscow.

[00:09:08] Louise asked me if I was interested in going and if I could find some friends that would be too.

[00:09:13] Dorothy West: Wait, why would Louise invite you?

[00:09:15] Henry Lee Moon: Oh, jealous, da?

[00:09:19] Dorothy West: I’m only wondering why she asked a journalist to sail to the other side of the world to make a film.

[00:09:25] Henry Lee Moon: I’ll be writing about it for the Amsterdam. Louise said all they asked for was a group of genuine negroes, and I think we need all fit the bill.

[00:09:36] Countee Cullen: Who is they?

[00:09:38] Henry Lee Moon: The party.

[00:09:39] Countee Cullen: Buried the lead a bit, didn’t you?

[00:09:41] Dorothy West: Which party?

[00:09:42] Countee Cullen: The Reds! The Communist Party! No wonder it’s filming in Moscow.

[00:09:48] Henry Lee Moon: I thought you had sympathies.

[00:09:50] Countee Cullen: I don’t think a man should be fired for reading a book. or attending a meeting, but that experiment happening in the East won’t end in anything but more death and war.

[00:10:03] Henry Lee Moon: The project is meant to inspire a revolution here.

[00:10:07] Countee Cullen: At least you’re admitting that. It’s a propaganda film.

[00:10:12] Henry Lee Moon: As a journalist, everything is propaganda. Why is it so unbelievable that I would rather spread the platform of a party that wants nothing more than equality for its people? What does America propaganda teach us but more violence, imperialism, and greed?

[00:10:28] Countee Cullen: You think those things don’t exist in Russia anymore because it calls itself by a new name? If you’re so concerned with the quality of life in America, maybe you should I spend the summer campaigning for Mr. James W. Ford’s VP run. That would do more for the cause than sailing all the way to the other side of the world to sing and dance.

[00:10:55] Henry Lee Moon: This isn’t a minstrel show.

[00:10:57] Dorothy West: We’ll see. Can we please get back to the film? I for one want to hear more.

[00:11:03] Countee Cullen: I’m due for a bath back home. Put me down as a no.

[00:11:08] Henry Lee Moon: You didn’t let me tell you the best part. Your pal, Mr. Langston Hughes, is going.

[00:11:14] Countee Cullen: Oh, what do I care about that? I see more than enough of Lang here in the city.

[00:11:19] Dorothy West: Langston Hughes? Will he be acting in the film?

[00:11:23] Henry Lee Moon: Not sure, but he’s very excited for this project.

[00:11:26] Countee Cullen: Of course he is. He’s as red as they come.

[00:11:31] Dorothy West: Imagine what we could learn. I’ve always wanted to put my writing in front of him.

[00:11:35] Volunteer Coordinator: Attention, volunteers. Excuse me. If you are looking for more to do, please meet the coordinators down in the basement.

[00:11:41] Countee Cullen: I’m getting out of here before they find more boxes to move.

[00:11:46] Henry Lee Moon: You have a month to change your mind. We sail in mid June. At least think about it.

[00:11:52] Countee Cullen: I don’t need to think about it. I don’t have the time or money, and I’m sure most are tagging along for a chance to go somewhere without prohibition. Where nobody knows them, and they can cut up without the eyes of society on them.

[00:12:09] Henry Lee Moon: Nothing wrong with letting loose while you’re still young. Right, Dottie?

[00:12:13] Countee Cullen: Say the word and I’ll get rid of him.

[00:12:15] Dorothy West: Goodbye, Countee.

[00:12:17] Countee Cullen: Goodbye. I’ll call on you next week. I’d love to get some notes on my new novel. Henry Lee.

[00:12:27] Henry Lee Moon: Ugh. So, Dot, I thought you’d be excited. The chance to star in a huge film like this.

[00:12:37] Dorothy West: Oh, I’m the star now.

[00:12:40] I want to go on this trip and I want you to go with me. Moscow. With you as my escort.

[00:12:47] Henry Lee Moon: Mm hmm. Sounds sweet, don’t it?

[00:12:50] Dorothy West: I admit it is tempting.

[00:12:52] Henry Lee Moon: Give in to temptation, Miss Dottie!

[00:12:54] Dorothy West: Henry Lee! Get back on that side of the desk! I’m almost done.

[00:12:59] Henry Lee Moon: Uh oh. I spy a typo. You accidentally addressed it to, uh, Moscow, New York.

[00:13:11] Let me take you to dinner, and tell you more.

[00:13:14] Dorothy West: Fine. Let me fix this, and then we’ll go.

[00:13:21] We had a lovely dinner, and he told me all about the project. He said that the Soviets would pay for room, board, everything while we were there, on top of a weekly stipend for our work. And it would pay even better than the play I toured to Paris this year before. After dinner, he walked me to the drugstore, and then called me a taxi.

[00:13:40] I got upstairs, and Helene was right to where I’d left her.

[00:13:48] Laying in bed, listening to the news.

[00:13:49] News Reporter: Breaking news overseas this evening., The prime minister of Japan succumbed to his wounds this morning and

[00:13:53] the country, is likely headed for a civil war

[00:14:01] Dorothy West: Hello? Helene? I grabbed some more aspirin. I’m sorry I didn’t come home straight away. I ended up at Log Cabin for dinner.

[00:14:10] Helene Johnson: Hi, Dot!. I figured one of your admirers would convince you to have a free meal. Was it Henry Lee or Countee Collen?

[00:14:18] Dorothy West: It was Henry Lee. Countee and I are just friends now.

[00:14:22] And here’s the aspirin.

[00:14:23] Helene Johnson: You and your friends. How was it? They didn’t miss me too much, did they?

[00:14:28] Dorothy West: Everyone was asking after you. They didn’t trust me to do anything except copy addresses onto envelopes. But I’m actually glad you couldn’t go.

[00:14:38] Helene Johnson: Well, when you have to choose between me and a man, I know where to place my bet.

[00:14:44] Dorothy West: That’s not it at all, Helene. Oh! I almost forgot! I have to write to Mother.

[00:14:51] Helene Johnson: You gave me a heart attack! I thought you saw a spider or something!

[00:14:55] Dorothy West: I need to ask her for more money. How long does it take for a letter to get to Boston?

[00:15:01] Helene Johnson: Why? Dot, stop writing and tell me what’s happened. Does it have to do with Henry Lee?

[00:15:07] Dorothy West: No. Well, yes and no. It has to do with Henry Lee and Russia and Langston Hughes.

[00:15:15] Helene Johnson: Now you’ve really, truly lost me.

[00:15:17] Dorothy West: I’m sorry. I want to write this before I lose my nerve.

[00:15:21] Helene Johnson: Fine. At least move a little so I can see what you’re writing. Hmm. Is my father well? Exciting news. A trip to Russia to make a film? Let me see.

[00:15:35] Dorothy West: Why does everyone love to just snatch things out of my hands?

[00:15:39] Helene Johnson: Because you never put up a fight. Hmm. The Soviets and the Communist Party. They know who your father is, right? You’re no communist.

[00:15:49] Dorothy West: They are bringing over a whole group of Negroes and no one has to be a communist. You should come to Helene Henry Lee asked me to pass the invitation along to you.

[00:16:00] Helene Johnson: This says you sail in a month,

[00:16:02] Dorothy West: Which is why I need the money soon. I have to pay my way there. But once we arrive, we’ll get paid. 400 rubles a week.

[00:16:10] Helene Johnson: How much is that in American dollars?

[00:16:12] Dorothy West: Oh, who knows? . You think it’s ridiculous, don’t you? I have no idea what’s over there. I don’t speak Russian, but Henry Lee made it all sound so good

[00:16:23] Helene Johnson: Dottie. Dottie. I think it’s fantastic. You have to go.

[00:16:26] Dorothy West: So do you! Please, Helene. You weren’t able to come with me to Paris, but this time, the Soviets will pay for everything. Henry Lee says the freedom in France is nothing like compared to the Soviet Union. You need to get out of the city, and I don’t mean back to Boston or Oak Bluffs.

[00:16:46] Come with me to Moscow for the summer.

[00:16:48] Helene Johnson: How much is ship fare?

[00:16:50] Dorothy West: Eighty or ninety dollars. I know, I know, but Henry Lee says we’ll be paid back.

[00:16:56] Helene Johnson: Henry Lee says, Henry Lee says. I can’t pay for my ticket with Henry Lee says.

[00:17:01] Dorothy West: That’s why I’m writing father, well, mother to ask father.

[00:17:05] Helene Johnson: It all sounds wonderful, but I don’t have the funds.

[00:17:09] I don’t want to ask your father. He’s already paying for the flat. I’ve hardly worked this year. I’ve not been inspired to write. This letter doesn’t say when you’ll be returning. You will be returning, won’t you?

[00:17:21] Dorothy West: Henry Lee says

[00:17:23] Helene Johnson: Henry Lee isn’t in charge of this thing, is he?

[00:17:26] Dorothy West: Louise Thompson is secretary of the committee organizing it.

[00:17:30] And Langston Hughes is helping fundraise too. They’ll both sail with us.

[00:17:34] Helene Johnson: Oh, now I see what’s behind this spontaneity. You’ve been in love with Langston Hughes ever since we met him five years ago. Although you’ve barely been able to speak to him whenever we see him out on the town.

[00:17:46] Dorothy West: I am not in love with Langston Hughes.

[00:17:50] I doubt he would even recognize me.

[00:17:53] Helene Johnson: Looks like we’ll both be spending the summer doing what our mothers wished we’d done years ago. Getting Husbands. Only I’ll be in Harlem, and you’ll be in Moscow.

[00:18:03] Dorothy West: I am not going on this trip for a husband. Molly Lewis is going, and so is Wayland Rudd. You remember seeing him in Porgy with me.

[00:18:12] There doesn’t seem to be many actors besides he and I. But I’m sure we’ll pick up more on the way. Please come, cousin. We might even be able to tour the Far East.

[00:18:23] Helene Johnson: I’ve been in bed all day listening to the news on the radio. So naturally, I’m an expert at world affairs. In my professional opinion, make sure you skip Japan.

[00:18:34] Dorothy West: I’ll double check the itinerary. Are you really not coming, even if we skip Japan?

[00:18:41] Helene Johnson: One of us should get to experience this, and I think it should be you. You’ll miss my birthday. We always celebrate together in Oak Bluffs what will I do? Celebrating all alone.

[00:18:56] Dorothy West: Yes, all alone with your mother and my mother and my father and our grandparents and then your cousins, the little ones, running around.

[00:19:06] I’m sure they won’t miss me reading in the corner.

[00:19:08] Helene Johnson: I’ll miss you. Also, you ought to redraft this letter before you send it to your mother. But it’s honest. Which is exactly why you should not send it to your mother. You need to mention Langston Hughes sooner. That will get her excited. And it’s not a Soviet film or even a mixed race film.

[00:19:27] Call it a Negro film. Your father will like that. Are you gonna ask for the whole $90?

[00:19:34] Dorothy West: I have a little saved. And Henry Lee offered to pay for some. But I can’t take his money.

[00:19:40] Helene Johnson: Nonsense. He wants to escort you across the world. He’s at least paying for some of it. The rest is fine, except you need a return date.

[00:19:48] Henry Lee didn’t say anything about that?

[00:19:50] Dorothy West: Maybe I should say winter? I don’t imagine any of us will want to be in Russia in the snow. Didn’t turn out well for the Germans.

[00:20:00] Helene Johnson: Winter is perfect. Rewrite this, and I’ll mail it in the morning. No need to thank me, just bring back some rubles or maybe a Russian tzar

[00:20:09] Dorothy West: I don’t think they have those anymore.

[00:20:12] Helene Johnson: What’s Russia without its tsars?

[00:20:14] Dorothy West: Free, hopefully.

[00:20:18] Narrator: Next time on Harlem in Moscow, Episode 2, Mission to Moscow.

[00:20:24] Langston Hughes: Good morning, comrades.

[00:20:30] Louise Thompson: I promised the captain that Langston would be giving a generous tip in exchange for his tardiness.

[00:20:35] Henry Lee Moon: Can you blame him? The last time he went overseas he came back without a wife.

[00:20:39] Langston Hughes: Shame, shame. This time he could have come back with a husband.

[00:20:43] Dorothy West: How would it look?

[00:20:44] Henry Lee Moon: Like we’re two adults who need a little privacy.

[00:20:48] Rachel West: It would’ve been a fine match. But you could do better.

[00:20:53] Louise Thompson: Uh, suit yourself. It’s only a picture that’ll last forever.

[00:20:57] Dorothy West: I felt as though she was staring at me while we were taking pictures.

[00:21:01] Mildred Jones: How do you do, Dorothy?

[00:21:03] Dorothy West: What do you know about that woman?

[00:21:05] Louise Thompson: On my count, three, two

[00:21:08] Langston Hughes: Ah, we must be here.

[00:21:13] And who’s this little thing?

[00:21:15] Dorothy West: I, I’m Dot.

[00:21:24] Narrator: Thank you for listening to Harlem and Moscow, an original audio play presented by theGrio Black Podcast Network. Harlem and Moscow was written by Alle Mims and directed by Aries Harper and Regina Griffin. Sam Riddell is the producer and sound designer. Our audio engineers are Aaron Reppert and Carey Durham, with music by Transitions.

[00:21:47] We’d like to thank our amazing cast. Evan Frazier as Dorothy West, Nancy Gilliam as Rachel West, Kyla Lacy as Helene Johnson. Broderick Clavery as Henry Lee, Basil Rodericks as Countee Cullen, Sidney Apollonio as the Volunteer Coordinator, and Jon Kelly as the News Reporter. Harlem in Moscow continues with Episode 2, Mission to Moscow.

[00:22:17] But first, if you’re dying for more on the real story and the real people, check out our companion podcast, Harlem in Moscow: Red Flags. Harlem in Moscow is such a powerful story that few people know about. Please rate, review, share, and tell a friend about this important adventure in Black history.