National Black Theater plans next act in new Harlem skyscraper

Over 50 years ago, Barbara Ann Teer rented space in a building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem, which would house a fledgling organization called the National Black Theater.

The theater has become an important cultural anchor, presenting productions of and about black Americans when their stories rarely appeared on mainstream stages, and welcoming artists such as Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. When the building was destroyed in a fire in 1983, many feared the theater might be doomed, said Sade Lythcott, Teer’s daughter. But Teer had another idea: she decided to buy the damaged 64,000 square foot building on Fifth Avenue, with the vision of revitalizing it and trying to use the real estate to help pay for the construction of the building. theater.

“She saw it as the next play in this Black Liberation Temple, which is owned,” said Lythcott, general manager of the theater. “Ownership would allow real estate to subsidize art, which was a model that would disrupt the standard practice of funding nonprofit theater. “

The move did not solve all of their problems. There have been struggles over the years and a series of financial disputes that at one point left the theater on the verge of losing its home, but the work continued. Now the National Black Theater is gearing up for its next act: replacing its long-standing home with a 21-story building that will feature a mix of housing, retail, and, on floors 3-5, a sparkling new home for the theater. .

Lythcott and other executives at the National Black Theater see the $ 185 million project and their partnership with the developers as a new chapter with the financial and institutional backing to make Teer’s dream come true, who died in 2008 : nurture a space where black performers can thrive, and the company can work to bring a deeper sense of racial justice to the American theater industry.

“What we are building today has really been informed in every way by this plan that Dr. Teer put in place from 1968,” Lythcott said. “It sounds like what our community of black artists and the Harlem community deserve.”

To carry out the development project, the National Black Theater partnered with a new real estate company, Ray, founded by Dasha Zhukova, a Russian-American art collector and philanthropist. L + M subsidized housing developer, architect Frida Escobedo, Handel Architects and design firms working on the National Black Theater space, Marvel, Charcoalblue and Studio & Projects are also joining the project.

Planning for the new development has come to a crossroads in the theater world. With theaters closed for more than a year due to the pandemic, many institutions have been called upon to turn in on themselves and question their own stories of racism and inequity, with many prominent voices calling for change during the process. the reopening of theaters. This is the kind of discussion the National Black Theater has been involved in for decades. This year, Lythcott advised Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on reopening the arts and, as chair of the Coalition of Theaters of Color, spoke about racial justice in arts budget negotiations.

Before deciding to work together, Lythcott and Zhukova must have had a frank conversation early on about a high-profile misstep in Zhukova’s past.

On Martin Luther King’s birthday in 2014, an online fashion magazine published a photo of Zhukova sitting on a chair – designed by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard – which was constructed from a cushion placed at the top of a sculpture of a partially dressed black woman lying on her back, in a kind of bondage. Zhukova apologized for the photo, saying the use of this work in a photoshoot was unfortunate, “because it took the work out of its intended context entirely.

Lythcott learned of this photo just before meeting Zhukova for dinner for the first time – in fact, she was looking for Zhukova on her phone at the restaurant before meeting to discuss the development project. At dinner, Zhukova brought up the incident first, Lythcott said, explaining that she would understand if the episode cast too much shadow on the project. But Lythcott was not fazed by this, she said, as it was clear that everything Zhukova had learned from the incident.

“Maybe this chair was the best thing that ever happened to Dasha,” Lythcott said, “because it was a catalyst in expanding the lens through which she sees the world.”

In an email, Zhukova said she was “deeply sorry” for the photo and said it had started her on a “journey of lifelong learning and education.”

“I am so grateful that Sade sees the person I try to be on my continued journey of personal growth,” she wrote.

The new building being planned, at 2033 Fifth Avenue, is expected to include 222 housing units, an event space and a communal lounge where people can eat, work and relax; a press release states that “the facilities will include health and wellness programs.”

The development project has been in the making for more than a decade, with several false starts. Lythcott and her brother – Michael Lythcott, who is the chairman of the board of the National Black Theater – see it as the fulfillment of their mother’s dream, while acknowledging that she may not have taken some of the paths she ‘they chose.

“She would never have associated with someone like Ray; it would never have had funding from Goldman Sachs, ”said Michael Lythcott, noting that Teer had wanted full control over the building and preferred to limit participation to those in the community.

But it is quite a means to an end that their mother has vigorously defended throughout her life: an “ecosystem through which blacks in particular are at their full throats, at their voices, fully rooted in their own liberation,” he said. said Sade Lythcott.

By the time construction begins this fall, the theater in New York will likely be back in full force. During construction of the new building, the National Black Theater will use the offices of the Apollo Theater and two of its performance venues. And by the time construction is due to be completed, in the spring of 2024, executives of the National Black Theater are hoping the space will become a meeting place, both for art and the kind of community interaction that has been sorely lacking in the city. over the past year.

“As a result of this pandemic,” said Jonathan McCrory, Executive Artistic Director of the National Black Theater, “there’s going to be some kind of psychic heartbreak that’s going to need a healing center. “

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