Five years ago, Mark Blackman, like many Ivy League graduates, moved to Manhattan full of dreams. After graduating Cornell, he got his first job as a headhunter for a tech company, and things were looking good. But then came 2008, the year of the Great Recession. Blackman lost his job, couldn’t make rent and started collecting unemployment.
“It was supposed to be for only six months,” Blackman, 27, said of the benefits. “But I started just as the economy was crashing, so that added all these extensions.”
With no luck finding a new job, he stayed on unemployment, and he fell back on what he’d made a hobby of in college: stand-up comedy. He spent months working at starter clubs in the Village, but soon realized, somewhat ironically, that the comedy business was dark hole: “It’s a lot of angry and depressed people,” Blackman said.
It was time for another move.
Rather than look for a new employer, he simply looked around the neighborhood: he was living in Harlem (an apt neighborhood, perhaps, for a guy with his name) in a dirt-cheap apartment full of struggling artists like him. He thought: this neighborhood might be my muse.
He began sketching a comedic musical based on his recent travails: the lost job, the threats of being evicted, etc. He noticed a musician about his age in the building, Aaron Brown — “He was another broke artist,” Blackman said — who also seemed to have a lot of time on his hands.
They became friendly, and after Blackman invited Brown to be a music instructor at the Jewish summer camp where he’s been teacthing for years, he showed Brown the sketch. “When he first gave it to me, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun,’” Brown, 28, recalled. Blackman persisted, and a few months later Brown read the entire script. “By the time I got the end, I realized that it was pretty funny.”
What began as Blackman’s sketch is now a full-length musical film, “Welcome to Harlem,” which will have its premiere at the Apollo Theater on Nov. 19. The film, based on Blackman’s recession woes (he plays the lead), and with Brown writing the music, is set in the neighborhood he’s called home for three years.
“I love it here,” Blackman said of Harlem, “I’d like to stay in the community for a long time and do whatever I can to help it.”
He loves Harlem, in part, because the help Harlem gave him in making the film.
“People didn’t want to do anything but support us,” Blackman said — “the police department, the churches, the bodega.”
All of them welcomed him and his crew without the normal, and expensive, permits normally required for filming. “It’s hard to imagine that happening in any other community.”
Plus, for long stretches at a time, he wasn’t paying rent. Blackman said his landlord was being investigated for some mysterious crime, and no one bothered collecting his check. “None of us [in the building] were paying rent,” he said, “and we continued not to as long as we could. … The film would not have been possible if I had to pay rent.”
Blackman isn’t religiously observant, but his Jewishness comes out in his mannerisms, he said — and in the film. His character, Marty Blackstein, drops in an “‘Oy Vey,’ at one point,” Blackman said. “But [the sense of Jewishness] comes across more in the way I look, how I talk.”
The Jewish-black dynamic isn’t central to the film. “The fish-out-of-water part [of the story] is more the context in which the story takes place, than what it’s actually about.”
To fund the film, Blackman first dipped into his savings, from his bar mitzvah and the like. Then he caught an awkward windfall: his grandfather died, and he inherited some of the money from the estate. His parents chipped in, too. Only after all those funds were depleted, he said, did he decide to raise money. The film, which has a cast and crew of 40, cost $250,000 to make, half of which Blackman raised on his own.
Blackman, as is fitting for a project so close to his heart, plays a character based on himself: an unemployed artists who struggles to capture a girl’s heart, all while building a new sense of place in Harlem.
As for how things have changed since he began making the film, he responded: “I’m back on unemployment, and I’m still broke.” But he is thrilled about the Apollo premiere: “There’s a lot of good word-of-mouth going,” he said. “I feel very good about our chances.”
“Welcome to Harlem” premieres Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. at the Apollo Theater, 253 W. 125th St. Tickets (starting at $20) are available through Ticketmaster or at the Apollo box office. (http://www.apollotheater.org/about/box-office)