More than 50 years ago, Barbara Ann Teer rented a building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem to house an emerging organization called the National Black Theater.
The theater became a major cultural anchor, showcasing productions by and about black Americans when their stories rarely appeared on mainstream stages, and hosted 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 would be doomed, said Sade Lythcott, Teer's daughter. But Tar had a different idea: she decided to buy the damaged 64,000-square-foot building on Fifth Avenue with a vision of revitalizing it and trying to use real estate to fund the theater's work.
"They saw it as the next slice of this black liberation temple that is owned," said Lythcott, the theater's manager. "Owning it would allow the property to subsidize the arts, which was a model that would break the usual practice of nonprofit theater sponsorship."
Moving didn't solve all of their problems. Over the years there have been fights and a number of financial disputes that left the theater at one point shortly before losing his home, but the work continued. Now the National Black Theater is preparing for its next act: it will replace its long-standing home with a 21-story building that will contain a mix of residential, retail and a shiny new home for the theater on floors three through five.
Lythcott and other National Black Theater leaders see the $ 185 million project and partnership they are partnering with developers as a new chapter with the financial and institutional support to enable them to realize the dream of the late Tar, who died in 2008 To Live: To maintain a space where black artists 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 is really shaped in every respect by this blueprint that Dr. Tar started in 1968, ”said Lythcott. "It feels like our black artist community and the Harlem community deserve it."
To realize the development project, National Black Theater has teamed up with the new real estate company Ray, founded by Dasha Zhukova, a Russian-American art collector and philanthropist. The sponsored housing developer L + M, the architect Frida Escobedo, the Handel Architects and the design offices Marvel, Charcoalblue and Studio & Projects, who are working on the premises of the National Black Theater, are also involved in the project.
The plans for the new building have reached a turning point in the theater world. With theaters closed for more than a year due to the pandemic, many institutions have been urged to turn inward and question their own histories of racism and inequality, with many prominent voices calling for change when theaters reopen. It's the kind of discussion the National Black Theater has been involved in for decades. This year, Lythcott has advised Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on the reopening of the arts and, as Chair of the Coalition of Theaters of Color, addressed racial justice in negotiations on the budget for culture.
Before deciding to work together, Lythcott and Zhukova had to have an open conversation early on about a high-profile misstep in Zhukova's past.
For Martin Luther King's birthday in 2014, an online fashion magazine published a photo of Zhukova sitting in a chair – designed by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard – which consists of a pillow resting on top of a sculpture of a partially clothed black woman lying on top of it Back, in a kind of bondage. Zhukova apologized for the photo, saying that the use of this work of art in a photoshoot was regrettable "as it completely tore the work of art out of its intended context".
Lythcott found out about this photo just before she first met Zhukova for dinner – in fact, she Googled Zhukova on her restaurant phone before they met to discuss the development project. At dinner, Zhukova brought up the incident first, told Lythcott, stating that she would understand if the episode cast too much shadow on the project. But Lythcott was not impressed, she said, because it was clear that Schukova had learned everything from the incident.
"Perhaps this chair was the best thing that ever happened to Dasha," said Lythcott, "because it catalytically expanded the lens through which she sees the world."
In an email, Zhukova said she was "deeply sorry" for the photo and said it took her on a "journey of further learning and education."
"I am so grateful that Sade is seeing the person I want to be on my continued journey to personal growth," she wrote.
The planned new building for Fifth Avenue 2033 is to include 222 residential units, an event room and a communal living room for eating, working and lingering; A press release stated, "Amenities include health and wellness programs."
The development project has been in the works for more than a decade, with several false starts. Lythcott and her brother – Michael Lythcott, chairman of the board of directors of the National Black Theater – see this as the fulfillment of their mother's dream, but realize that she may have missed some of the paths they chose.
“She would never have teamed up with someone like Ray; She would never have gotten funding from Goldman Sachs, ”said Michael Lythcott, noting that Tar wanted full control of the building and preferred to limit stakes to members of the community.
But it's all a means to an end that her mother has vigorously advocated her entire life: an "ecosystem where full-necked, full-vocalized blacks, in particular, are fully rooted in their own liberation," said Sade Lythcott.
The theater in New York should be in full swing again by the start of construction this fall. During the new construction, the National Black Theater will use the offices of the Apollo Theater and two of its performance rooms. And by the end of construction in the spring of 2024, the directors of the National Black Theater hope that the space will become a meeting place, both for the arts and for the kind of communal interaction that was sorely missed last year.
"In the wake of this pandemic," said Jonathan McCrory, executive artistic director of the National Black Theater, "there will be a kind of psychological grief that a healing center needs."