By Keith L. Forest
Last night, I had the great fortune to be in the room with not 1, not 2, but 3 of my mentors – Lloyd Williams, CEO of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and Angelo Ellerbee, President & CEO of Double XXposure. These giants in their respected fields, along with a cast of celebrities, luminaries, dignitaries and special guests including Freddie Jackson, Kathy Sharpton, and others came together to salute another one of my mentors, the legendary Irene Gandy who, along with Black Enterprise editor Sonia Alleyne and Essence Magazine’s beauty icon Mikki Taylor, was being honored by Inspired In New York.
Long before I even knew what a publicist was, Irene was redefining the role. As the only African American card-holding member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, Irene has been the guiding force behind shows like Glengarry Glen Ross starring Al Pacino; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof; The Anarchist; Life in the Theater, Race and served as associate producer for the Tony Award winning production of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess.
Before bedazzling the great white way, Irene was breaking grounds as a publicist for Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hook’s acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. Her new job placed her in the company of Esther Rolls, Rosalind Cash, Denise Nicholas, Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson and a host of others. In addition to her theatric ties, Irene also held positions at Columbia Records, where she guided the careers of such artists as The Jacksons, Patti Labelle, The Isley Brothers and others. Born and raised in Long Island, Irene attended New York University and is a longtime resident of the East Village where she raised her daughter, acclaimed artists and art educator Myra Gandy.
At 69 years young and with over 100 Broadway shows under her belt, Irene has not slowed down. She currently sits on the board of directors for HARLEM WEEK and New Heritage Theatre in Harlem where she mentors and provides guidance and direction to young talent and media support for numerous events and activities. In 2008 Irene became the first female press agent to be immortalized with a Sardi’s restaurant caricature. She was rewarded a Vanguard Award for her work on Black to Broadway, and was recognized as a “Woman of Excellence” by the National Action Network.
Irene is more than an inspiration. She epitomizes what success, elegance and tenacity looks like. She is a mother, sister, and daughter of the struggle. She is a matriarch and friend to the community, and a blessing to all the lives she touches. With a strong work ethic and commitment to her craft and gifting, Irene affirms what legends are made of.
It was only a week ago that I joined an overflowing room with family, friends, and well-wishers at a memorial service for another one of my mentors and friends Dillard Boone. A devout Catholic, Dillard was memorialized at his home church St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Harlem. The spiritual leader Father Gregory Chisholm, SJ and others spoke with such passion and conviction of our beloved “DB” – this father, uncle, brother and friend who toured the world as an ambassador of the arts. Later on in the program Lloyd Williams joined Jeff Eaton from Congressman Charles Rangel’s office to announce that in 2013, the year we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, our beloved Dillard Boone will receive a notation in the congressional record honoring his outstanding contribution to the Harlem arts community – a deserving honor for a life well lived.
We all stand on the shoulders of someone that has gone before us. I personally am quite fortunate to be able to embrace a few of those that held me up. However, many of us are not as fortunate and often never get the chance to give those that have helped define us flowers while they are alive. This year is poised to be a stellar year for people of color. Change is in the air. Just last week we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. while seeing his dream revealed with the swearing in of President Barack Hussein Obama. We owe it to our ancestor and those that have gone before us to honor those that have made a difference in our lives by paying it forward.
Keith L. Forest is a freelance publicist, marketing and event strategist, writer and proud Bedford-Stuyvesant home owner who lives and works in the beloved community. His current blog space mybedstuy.blogspot.com seeks to celebrate the people and places that make up this great community while addressing issues such as gentrification, predatory lending and other ill norms that seek to exploit, discredit and harm the area and its people.
Photo credit: Inspired in New York Co-Producer George Harrell; Honoree Sonia Alleyne; Honoree Irene Gandy; Honoree Mikki Taylor; and Inspired in New York Series Producer Camille Evans.