Rome Neal began his entertainment journey as an actor, but has received numerous awards and accolades for acting and directing. His directing talents have been showcased nationally and internationally – from Broadway to Eastern Europe. He epitomizes cool urban sophistication.
How did it all begin?
Rome went to the Nuyorican Poets Café as an actor. Rome said, “There was a play called Nuyorican Nights. I came in as a young actor and the founder of the café was directing the play. He recommended me for a part. That’s where it started.”
After Nuyorican nights closed, Rome stayed connected to the Café family for quite a few years before they closed for a five year renovation. During the closing, Rome and the other staff members were in constant contact and did theatrical pieces together. When they reopened, Rome said, “I came to the Café with a production that I called Julius Caesar Set in Africa back in ’89, and it took off from there.” His next production was Don’t Explain, a play about Lee Morgan which he directed. Ron Cephas Jones, who played the grandfather in the hit TV show This is Us, and Rome were nominated and won seven Audelco awards for this production.
Rome acted and directed in productions all over the city, however he said, “There was one play that came into my world, it was a play called Monk by Laurence Holder. Lee Morgan opened up the world of jazz to me, but Monk really did it for me. Because I had to be Thelonious Monk in the play, I had to do a lot of research, go into the clubs, be around the people and be involved in the music. And this really turned me around to loving the music and the musicianship.”
Rome went on to say that one night I decided to sing because he had heard someone sing and she didn’t sound so good. So the next week he went back there and sung a song. He didn’t sound so good. He realized then that he had to do his homework. He started taking vocal lessons with people like Barry Harris, attending workshops and developing his craft. He says, “I’m a very confident vocalist now.”
“The play about Monk started something – it clicked, Rome remembers. The Nuyorican Poets Café is my home. However, I wanted to bring that energy of other jazz jams to the Nuyorican, and I started with my Banana Puddin’ Jazz series. It started on a Monday and it went on and ended up being on the first Saturday of every month,” Rome said.
When asked about his obvious affection for banana pudding, Rome said, “I use to go to this place in Harlem named Wimps on 125th Street. They had this delicious banana pudding and it was religious of me every time I went to Harlem to go to Wimps. I just fell in love with it – I liked it before, but then I really fell in love with it. After Wimps closed, I started to make my own banana pudding. I guess from my mother’s old recipe. I just decided to bring the pudding to one of the jazz sessions, and that’s how it started.” Rome then went from being nicknamed “Monk” to “Banana Pudding.”
Rome has been able to incorporate banana pudding jazz into many of the things he’s done, like showcasing new talent and giving shekere awards. As a way of determining who, how and when awards should be given, he created this smaller version of the shekere instrument he often carries at various venues. Rome said, “It began to be an expensive proposition, but this is my heart and I love sharing it with people. They are very happy to receive it.” He gives these awards to people who are doing great things in the arts, particularly in theatre and jazz. He’s given shekere awards to Randy Weston, Barry Harris, Sam Pinn of 966 Jazz, and Patience Higgins of the Sugarhill quartet.
Banana Puddin’ Jazz began April 7, 2003 – 14 years ago. He added, “I’m now in fundraiser mode between now and June 3rd. I ask for money for the program. It’s difficult, but I take what I can get and make it work. I have a TV show – Banana Puddin’ Jazz on BCAT every Tuesday night at 10:30, channel 3. I have the Banana Puddin’ series once every month when I have a featured artist, and a jam session with complimentary banana pudding for everybody. So, it’s not easy keeping the program together like that, but my heart is there – my sole is there.”
Rome is the proud father of a two time Olympic medal winner, Lia Neal. In addition to being a fine athlete, Lia is a loving and devoted daughter who stepped up to the plate after Rome took a fall off a 25’ ladder. He was attempting to change a light bulb at the Café. On the day of the accident, a show was scheduled for that night. Lia not only made the banana pudding for that show, but served it as well. Rome was overcome with gratitude and appreciation. Rome spent 44 days in the hospital.
Future plans include securing sponsors to produce a documentary on the 14th year of Banana Puddin’ Jazz, and a book of poetry compiled from audience participation. Rome is looking forward to upgrading and keeping his television show alive. “Sponsorship is very important and lucrative. It not only supports the brother, but my name goes wherever his name goes – on flyers, TV credits as the name of the sponsor for that particular show,” he said. Also, whenever he’s doing something, he puts the word out on what his sponsors are doing.
Let’s keep the jazz and banana pudding flowing!
For more information and/or to support Banana Puddin’ Jazz, please go to Rome Neal’s website: RomeNeal.com, become a member or better yet, be a sponsor. Nuyorican Poets Café is located at 236 East 3rd Street (between B & C Avenues), NYC