Out of the 269 groups that auditioned, only 30 from the entire state of Michigan made the grade. Now, as “Evening at the Apollo” comes to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater, those 30 will compete for a chance at winning $1,000 and the opportunity to participate in Amateur Night at the one and only Apollo Theatre in Harlem, N.Y.
The inspiration for this competition is rooted in the history of the Apollo Theater. The theater opened in 1914 and quickly garnered the reputation as the soul of Harlem’s musical and entertainment mecca. It was the “must-play” performance hall for aspiring young black talent. While the theater became a permanent stage for black variety shows, beginning in 1935, the Apollo was one of the first racially integrated theaters in New York for both patrons and artists.
Ralph Cooper established the first Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1934, and the first star to outshine the competition was Ella Fitzgerald. Others who have graced the Apollo stage include Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin and, more recently, Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo. Having been host to so many big names, the Apollo Theater was officially given landmark status in 1983.
Continuing in its tradition of greatness, the Apollo Theater went on tour this year, traveling to 40 cities, to find the best contestants for this year’s Amateur Night. From each city, 15 acts were selected to compete. Of the 15, only one gets to go on to compete at the Apollo, and the audience decides the winner. This year, the fate of Ann Arbor will be decided by this system, as several of the 15 contestants are Ann Arbor’s very own.
Of the local groups that made it into the show, three are composed of University of Michigan students. Sidney Bailey, a.k.a. B.I.Z. the Messenger, a 21-year-old MC from Grand Rapids, will be performing a self-composed piece entitled “Belief.” The other two acts include Lhea Copeland, an 18-year-old spoken word artist from Detroit, and Serene Arena, Spencer Bastian, Scott Doerrfeld and Nick Kittle, four members of the band De Novo.
Lhea Copeland is now a college freshman, but she has been writing poetry since she was twelve. She started “as a way to heal (herself)” after the loss of her mother and brother. As she grew, her poetry changed and is now more about connecting with others and speaking out about her role as an activist. As she began to reach out to others through her work, becoming a spoken word artist, a poet that “takes it one step further and takes their words off the page,” seemed a given. In her own words, “To me, it was natural to take the poetry to the stage.”
Unlike Copeland, who has been performing for the past few years, De Novo, in their current four-member wholeness, is newly formed. Scott Doerrfeld, the keyboardist, put up flyers to find other members of the band. Nick Kittle, the drummer, answered the ad and brought with him the knowledge of a possible guitarist. Spencer Bastian was that guitarist, and very quickly the group became a trio. After some searching for a lead vocalist, the group found Serene Arena, and as of a few months ago, Arena made the group a quartet.
The band decided to audition for “Evening at the Apollo” on kind of a lark. Arena saw a flyer and, even though the group had only been together for a short time, they decided to take a chance. Now, performing the first song that all four of them wrote together, “Driving On,” they will be competing against the best. In the words of Scott Doerrfeld, “If you don’t have the right chemistry, (the band) doesn’t go anywhere.”
This Friday, along with twelve other acts, these six students will do battle through their words and music as “Evening at the Apollo” takes the stage.