The musical-theatre community is unlike any other.
To many, there is nothing greater than an outstanding overture and the familiarity of the glimmering costumes and bright signs.
The world of Broadway holds a special place to many but, to Mercyhurst’s own Janiece Withers, the connection hits home.
Withers, a junior Fashion Merchandising major, is a legacy to some of the under-appreciated greats in the field of theatre.
Her grandfather, Ben Harney, is just one example of many to fall under this category.
Born on Aug. 29, 1952, Harney grew up in Brooklyn, New York not too far off from The Great White Way. Like many, he fell in love with the arts at a young age. Harney went on to attend LaGuardia High School, and then Julliard with a full scholarship for dance.
During his time at Julliard, Harney was cast in the original production of “The Wiz.” After graduating, Harney went on to appear in a productions from “Pippin” and “Tap Dance Kid” to “Ain’t Misbehavin.”
Although these roles were monumental in making his career, Harney’s most beloved role was the original role of Curtis Taylor Jr. in the musical “DreamGirls.”
Opening on Broadway in 1981, “DreamGirls” is an iconic musical that centers around a music trio called the Dreamettes, and the band members’ journey to fame. Along the way, the trio meets ambitious manager Curtis Taylor Jr., and are signed to sing backup for a well-known celebrity. Like all good stories, this musical centers around the struggles of fame and what is to lose.
At the 1982 Tony Awards, Harney’s performance as Curtis earned him the once-in-a-lifetime achievement of winning a Tony Award for “best leading actor in a musical.”
Harney went on to lead a wonderful life in New York City, having many roles in theatre and television. He even went on to work on the direction side of theatre.
Years later, and with the passion of the arts still alive in his heart, Harney founded By All Means Save Some Theatre Works (BAMSS). This summer workshop grants kids living in New York the chance to learn all about theatre. Through the medium of a performance, BAMSS grants them the chance to put a performance together.
Jennie Harney-Fleming, daughter of Harney, choreographed and assisted with the BAMSS productions for many years. Like her father, Harney-Fleming fell in love with the arts at a young age. She has skyrocketed both in the national tour scene and on Broadway. Similar to her father, Harney-Fleming also attended LaGuardia high school. She then went on to graduate from AMDA, also known as the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.
Harney-Fleming’s career skyrocketed following her debut at the 2010 Rising Star concert where she received stellar reviews for her talent. Throughout the early years of 2010s, Jennie was a part of many unique projects. In 2014, she was a winner on the second season “APOLLO LIVE 2” which is a singing competition on BET.
Harney-Fleming’s Broadway career kicked off in 2014 when she was a swing for the first national tour of “Motown the Musical.” The following year, Harney-Fleming booked the leading role of Pearl Bailey in the off-Broadway production of “Pearl.” For that production she received an Audelco Award nomination for “best actress in a musical.” The following fall, Harney-Fleming made her official Broadway debut as Cecil’s sister, Nettie, in the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.”
Although she clearly had quite the career throughout the 2010s, her latest credit is what she is best known for.
Until Broadway closed last March due to COVID-19, Jennie Harney-Fleming was starring as the current Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton.”
The 2015 hit was still selling out performances until COVID-19 hit. Even with the loss of live performances, Harney was given the opportunity to show the world her talent yet again when the current cast of “Hamilton” performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade this past November.
“Having the opportunity to be a part of the parade means so much more to me because I grew up watching it, especially in a year like this,” said Harney-Fleming during a FabTV interview.
“Hamilton” as a musical was profound to the theater community because it was the first to cast people of color in the otherwise white-washed roles of the founding fathers of America. It’s soundtrack, written by Lin-Manual Miranda, reached commercial success as well.
Overall, the show was a major leap for Broadway actors and it is highly competitive to play a role in it.
“We need more representation and thought about how we are portraying dark skinned people in the arts. There have been improvements but there is more to be done,” Janiece Withers, niece of Harney-Fleming, said. “I am thankful for shows like Hamilton starting a conversation. But, we need more.”
Similar to his aunt, Justin Withers, brother of Mercyhurst’s Janiece Withers, also shares the familial passion for the arts. Growing up, Withers and his sister would take an active role in the BAMSS camp productions. Justin Withers currently lives in the Big Apple and is auditioning for shows constantly.
Fresh from graduating from Rutgers University, he landed a role as Jeff in the world premiere cast of the off-Broadway production of “American Underground.” Currently, the Harney family is still active despite COVID-19. Ben Harney continues to give lessons through BAMSS, although he is close to retiring. Jennie Harney-Flemming is hopeful to return to Broadway once COVID-19 is under control.
In the meantime, however, she is ceaselessly working on many projects.
Her current untitled project is a platform that is working to unify actors, producers and others in the field of the arts to stay in contact. While there is not much information about the project, it is exciting nonetheless and will be seminal to artists nationwide once it can come to fruition.
The world of musical theatre has birthed many performers who are beloved by their community, but remain under-appreciated by the broader public. Black History Month acts as the perfect opportunity to honor all black performers in the arts and celebrate their achievements. Ben Harney is a prime example of a black performer who deserves more recognition for his talent.
The arts have always acted as an outlet for many, but there needs to be more praise for the role of the Black community and their under-appreciated achievements with productions such as “DreamGirls”’ and “Motown the Musical”. Between Harney’s achievements, Harney-Flemming’s role in Hamilton and the Withers siblings’ talents in theater and fashion, it is of no contest that this family is a prime example of the power and importance of Black History Month.