(Julia Jacobs’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/4; via Pam Green; Photo: National Black Theater is working with developers to replace its longtime home. This rendering shows a planned 21-story building that will include a mix of housing, retail and a gleaming new theater.Credit…Luxigon, via National Black Theater.)
The pathbreaking company plans to replace its Harlem home with a 21-story building with apartments, retail and a new theater.
It was more than 50 years ago that Barbara Ann Teer rented space in a building at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem that would serve as the home of a nascent organization called National Black Theater.
The theater blossomed into an important cultural anchor, presenting productions by, and about, Black Americans when their stories rarely appeared on mainstream stages, and hosting artists including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Nina Simone, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. When the building was destroyed in a fire in 1983, many feared that the theater was 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 a vision of revitalizing it and trying to use real estate to help pay for the theater’s work.
“She saw it as the next piece of this temple to Black liberation, which is ownership,” said Lythcott, the theater’s chief executive. “Ownership would allow the real estate to subsidize the art, which was a model that would disrupt the standard practice of nonprofit theater funding.”
The move did not solve all their problems. There were struggles over the years, and a series of financial disputes that at one point left the theater on the brink of losing its home, but the work continued. Now National Black Theater is getting ready for its next act: It is replacing its longtime home with a 21-story building that will include a mix of housing, retail and, on floors three through five, a gleaming new home for the theater.
Lythcott and other National Black Theater leaders see the $185 million project, and the partnership they are entering with developers, as a new chapter with the financial and institutional backing to allow them to live out the dream of Teer, who died in 2008: to nurture 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’re building today really has been informed in all ways by this blueprint that Dr. Teer put into place starting in 1968,” Lythcott said. “It feels like what our community of Black artists and the community of Harlem deserve.”
To realize the development project, National Black Theater has partnered with a new real estate firm, Ray, which was founded by Dasha Zhukova, a Russian-American art collector and philanthropist. Also joining the project are the subsidized housing developer L + M, the architect Frida Escobedo, the firm Handel Architects, and the design firms working on National Black Theater’s space, Marvel, Charcoalblue, and Studio & Projects.
The planning for the new development has come at a turning point in the theater world. With theaters closed for more than a year because of the pandemic, many institutions have been called on to turn inward and interrogate their own histories of racism and inequity, with many prominent voices calling for change when theaters reopen. It is the kind of discussion National Black Theater has been involved in for decades. This year Lythcott has advised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on reopening the arts and, as chair for the Coalition of Theaters of Color, has spoken up about racial justice in arts budget negotiations.
Before they decided to work together, Lythcott and Zhukova had to have a frank conversation early on about a high-profile misstep in Zhukova’s past.