RESTORATIONART: “A Revolutionary Time” At the Reopening of the Billie Holiday Theatre by Donna Walker-Kuhne

Revitalizing theater, let alone a community-based, cultural institution, is no small accomplishment.  But the Billie Holiday Theatre (BHT) in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, has done just that.  Under the driving-force of the indefatigable Indira Etwaroo, Ph.D., this premiere cultural institution re-opened its doors in Restoration Plaza earlier this month, following a $4.1-million renovation. Dr. Etwaroo and her team at RestorationArt were able to secure the necessary funding and the infrastructure for BHT to remerge as the global leader of presenting theater focused on the African-American and Caribbean-American experience and cultural heritage.

I first attended the BHT in the 1980s when it was headed by former Executive Director Marjorie Moon. Ms. Moon’s outstanding leadership and artistic direction for 40 years helped pioneer community-arts organization partnerships. BHT not only had community members on its board of directors, it also made history in 1981 when it transferred the hit play Inacent Black, featuring actress Melba Moore, to Broadway with 50-percent of its finances derived from the African-American community. This was a first for the theater world! In addition, BHT nurtured the early careers of many artists, such as Sonia Sanchez, Ruby Dee, Ron K. Brown, Debbie Allen, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Tichina Arnold, Billy Cobbs, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Carol Woods, Elaine Graham, Ebony JoAnn and Samm-Art Williams. It was so inspiring and encouraging to witness the rebirth of this essential cultural institution, and to see the vision of its founders and hard-working staff spring to life.

On opening day, the buzz was electric. The attendees were excited and proud; pulsing with expectation of the celebration heralding the theatre’s past, present and future. Cellphone and media cameras recorded the ribbon-cutting marking BHT’s new beginning, then there were speeches presented by elected officials and cultural community leaders, including Colvin Grannum, President and CEO, of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp.; Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams; and BHT Board Chairman Wayne C. Winborne.

During her remarks, Dr. Etwaroo described the reopening as a “a revolutionary time” that required “a revolutionary tribe.” She went on to say: “As the cultural centerpiece of the nation’s first community development corporation, RestorationArt is proud to re-open The Billie Holiday Theatre as a cutting-edge venue for world-class theater, dance and music in the heart of Central Brooklyn…While much has improved in the decades that have followed (the opening), the common themes of race, class and equity remain as relevant today as they were then. More than ever, The Billie will answer the call to bring understanding, inspiration and healing to our times through award-winning theater, dance and music, as only art can.”

BHT is the cornerstone of RestorationArt’s multidisciplinary arts and culture programing, which also includes dance and music residency programs; an arts gallery, and a mentorship-based Youth Arts Academy. The state-of-the-art renovations include a new maple floor stage, lighting, acoustic panels, control room, seats, dressing rooms (with showers), and an energy-efficient heating and cooling system. In addition to theatre productions, BHT also will be home for the Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Co., and the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop.

The commitment, conviction and arduous efforts that led to the renovation of the BHT is an extraordinary example of what can happen when visionary leadership joins forces with a coalition of arts leaders; community partners, and civic and corporate leaders. These types of coalitions ensure that the arts can remain a platform for disparate voices, as well as a vehicle for enrichment, social justice, democratic values and the promotion of dialogue. I am inspired and encouraged to continue my work to help foster these types of partnerships, which helps to ensure that there are strong, vibrant and solvent venues for the stories from communities of color to be both seen and heard. Thank you to the dedicated leaders and supporters of RestorationArt whose boots on the ground showed us what is possible. Cheers to The Billie!

photo credit  Hollis King