April, a transplanted New Yorker, won the first slam poetry contest at Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) this spring, less than a year after moving to Chestnut Hill.

April, a transplanted New Yorker, won the first slam poetry contest at Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) this spring, less than a year after moving to Chestnut Hill.

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

In the hushed archives of Harvard University, mistress of whimsy April James, PhD., found a playground of sorts. April was working toward her doctorate in historical musicology, taking a course called “Manuscript Sources” when the professor “pulled stuff off the shelves for the class.”

Those manuscripts included Acts II and III of “Trionfo della Fedelta,” an opera by Electress Maria Antonia of Saxony (1724 to 1780). Maria Antonia’s music and libretto must have suggested a woman as full of play and creativity as April herself.

“The purpose of life is to play, though we sometimes forget it,” said April, co-chair of the Poetry Slam Committee of Mt. Airy Art Garage who is “40-something but can pass for 30-something or 20-something.”

For Maria Antonia, a poet, painter, keyboardist, wife and mother of seven surviving children, composing and acting in her own operas must have been a romp of the heart and mind. April would spend 15 years with Maria Antonia’s music.

Long before she attended Harvard, April had the gift of leavening life with playfulness and music. “From my earliest days I was conscious of being in love with music,” said April, a transplanted New Yorker who won the first slam poetry contest at Mt. Airy Art Garage this spring, less than a year after moving to Chestnut Hill.

“I got a good music education just from being in the children’s choir of St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, and both of my parents were amateur singers,” said April, who taught herself to read music on her grandmother’s piano at age 7. “Back then, public schools still had music education, and that helped too.”

With a BA in communications in hand from Queens College of the City University of New York, April landed work in copyediting and later became an associate producer with a PBS show. “I would switch the view between cameras or press a button and roll the graphics, kind of like being Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise.”

When the repetition palled, April found her way around it. “At a nearby Barnes and Noble I bought a book called ‘Juggling for the Complete Klutz,’” she said. “It came with three beanbags.”  Within days, she’d mastered a skill that would help buy groceries later.

Laid off when TV proved fickle, April followed her heart and returned to Queens College for a second BA, this time in music. She graduated magna cum laude. That stellar record won her a full fellowship to Harvard. “I stayed solvent and had a little money for research,” she said. “Today, students leave school burdened with debt.”

April’s baroque dance classes, which featured minuets, gavottes and passacailles, “like in the movie ‘Belle’” …  were fun,” she said. “We danced in costume. I look really good as an 18th century man.”

April combined passion and politics in choosing Electress Maria Antonia for her doctoral dissertation. “I had studied a lot of feminist theory and Marxist critiques of the media, and then I drew upon my own experiences in television and publishing. I saw how women and minorities are largely taken for granted, ignored or saddled with demeaning messages. I thought I could combine music and activism to show women in a new light.”

April’s dissertation grew into an exhibition at Harvard’s Loeb Music Library in 2002, “In Her Own Hand: Operas Composed by Women 1625-1913,” for which April, now Dr. James, was historian and curator. Her other skill right out of grad schools was as a juggler in a show called “Foodplay” that helped teach school children about balanced nutrition.

To reach a broader audience, April began the Maria Antonia Project in 2004. She managed all aspects of the New York-based project, from producing 5 to 10 annual concerts, hiring performers, choosing venues and fundraising to writing media blurbs. It was grueling.

“I had hoped to interest a university in staging one of Maria Antonia’s operas, but no one will give you start-up funds for that,” she said. She taught part-time, won grants and did a two-year stint at a nonprofit, the Social Sciences Research Council, to stay afloat financially.

From 2010 to 2011, as the Maria Antonia Project wound down, April’s alter ego, Madison Hatta, inspired by the Mad Hatter of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” popped fully formed into April’s mind. “I didn’t create Madison Hatta,” April said. “Madison comes through me and transforms angst into joy through original sonnets.”

Consider a snippet from Madison’s sonnet, “Time’s done with flying”: “Time is done with flying, and will now take the bus! But that’s not cause for crying, oh please don’t make a fuss!”

Or “Ode to the Economic Downturn”: “Oh, I’d love to figure out how to make ends meet … They won’t even say ‘hi’ when passing on the street!”

April sells some of her more than 200 sonnets as 4″x 6″ glossy postcards. An April+Madison presentation featuring sonnets at this spring’s meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America got a good review in the Huffington Post. “To uplift the spirit through play is part of my mission in life,” April said.

To obtain the whimsical items, to book April + Madison performances, inspirational presentations or playshop for adults, contact April at alj@aprillynnjames.com or 347-204-1425.