Gertrude Hadley Jeannette officially started the theater group (Harlem Artist’s Development League Especially for You) in 1980, but its roots go back to the 1950s.
“When we started out, my students were Esther Rolle, Isabel Sanford and Rosalind Cash,” Jeannette, 96. “They started out on my stage. I was their first teacher and they all came from Harlem.”
She also taught Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier and many other young black actors who needed a stage to perform on.
Jeannette said she still gets phone calls from former students, some of whom continued on to successful careers in theater and others who became doctors, lawyers and teachers.
“We have to keep it going. It’s very important to me,” she said before a vaudeville-style variety show fund-raiser last month.
The group depends largely on its fund-raisers and donations from community groups, she said.
“I had great support from the community. I felt that’s what community theater is all about,” Jeannette said. “You don’t know how much talent is out there. Harlem has such a wealth of talent and we have stayed in Harlem through thick and thin.”
She said the group’s survival has had a lot to do with the people who have worked closely with the group.
“We managed to stay alive because people went on to fame,” she said, referring to actors Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis. “After I’m gone, I’m hoping it will remain and continue to go on and on,” she said. “That’s why we have to give these fund-raisers.”
Actor Larry Hines said he’d always known of the prestigious H.A.D.L.E.Y Players, but had never been involved with the group until last month’s fund-raiser, a variety show.
“I really wanted to be a part of this to give something back to the community. It’s something wonderful to be a part of,” Hines said. “It’s a place where people can have their talents grow.”
Hines said what’s most important about the group is its contribution to black actors.
“This is a theater company for the black artists in New York City,” he said. “You can really get your talents tweaked and perfected so you can go on and be a star … People really believe in the H.A.D.L.E.Y Players.”
Its new season kicks off Tuesday with a performance of “The Devil & Elijah Muhammad” at the Harlem School of the Arts Theatre, 647 St. Nicholas Ave. near W. 142nd St.
For more information or to donate to the H.A.D.L.E.Y Players, visit hadleyplayers.org.