Bed-Stuy’s historic Slave Theater #1 – once an intellectual hub in the black community for art, theater and cultural consciousness-- is in foreclosure, scheduled for auction November 2012.
However, only two months from its public sale date, it looks as though the 102-year-old theater with its recent storied past might have at least one, very serious taker: The New Brooklyn Theater, a group of five people who plan to revive the theater for community use, lest it be sold and re-purposed, or worse, torn down.
“It seemed like there were so many different sides to the story of this theater, yet, it was all one vision, which was to preserve its use and history,” said Jonathan Solari, artistic director at the New Brooklyn Theater.
For more than ten years, the building has languished unused to its full capacity while its interior has slowly deteriorated. When the property’s previous owner, a judge named John Phillips, passed away in 2008, the court appointed Phillips’s nephew, the Reverend Samuel Boykin, as the estate’s executor.
According to Boykin’s records, by the time of Phillips’s death, the Slave Theatrer had accumulated more than $2 million of debt from years of uncollected rent and unpaid property taxes, and so he needed to sell it right away.
But for the past four years, a battle has waged off and on between Boykin, the community and Clarence Hardy (one of Phillips’s close friends) over the ownership, the rights and use of the theater. Meanwhile, it slid into foreclosure.
Solari, who moved to Brooklyn ten years ago and currently lives in Bushwick, says he’s very familiar with the theater’s stormy past, and all he wants is the chance to preserve it.
“Everyone had an admiration for the history of this place, and loved Judge John Phillips,” said Solari. “But greed seemed to get in the way of what should be a place for everyone.”
He said he began eyeing the theater more than two years ago. But by March, when he saw no serious takers, he and four other colleagues who he said are “equally as passionate about it as I am,” decided to look into the possibility of fundraising for its survival.
By May, they had come up with a plan, which they presented to Boykin: A fully restored, three-stage theater and performing arts center that will develop the work of Brooklyn artists for Brooklyn audiences. The group would maintain and restore much of the original architecture and fixtures, including the stage, the murals, even the chandeliers and add a café and possible wine bar.
Boykin supported it, given they could somehow pull off the fundraiser with only six months left. The group quickly incorporated as New Brooklyn Theater and within four-and-a-half months, applied for and received 501(c)3 non-profit status.
On August 5, they launched a Kickstarter campaign, a way to build financial support online while simultaneously build community consensus. Their goal: $250,000, a drop in the bucket of what would be needed for full renovation, but a demonstration to potential big funders of community support.
So far, they’ve raised $25,805. They have 16 days to raise $174,195 more.
“That basically means we need to raise $10,000 for the next 16 days,” said Solari, flashing a nervous smile. “But if everyone in Bed-Stuy put just one dollar in, we’d have a theater!”
Solari and the other members of New Brooklyn Theater are holding a community forum for the fundraising of the Slave Theater on Thursday, September 27, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. in the community room of Restoration Plaza, located at 1368 Fulton Street.
Solari says that anybody in the community interested in the future of theater is invited. He also points out that they are not the only interested buyers; there are four others, but none of the others are so interested in keeping it as a theater (at least one is a clothing retailer and another is a condo developer).
So far, they have reached out to Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, Councilmember Ed Towns, representatives from the offices of Councilman Al Vann and Christine Quinn, and they will be sitting down with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowtiz next week.
“We really need to see how the community forum goes, because we need to have the community in agreement,” said Solari. “And I will sit there until 5:00 a.m. to hear everyone’s voice, because I don’t want people to feel frustrated.
“But really, this isn’t about me and this isn’t about the company New Brooklyn Theater; this is about the community; this is about Brooklynites; this is about Bed-Stuy; this is about the local artists and the thousands of people that can be serviced by this building if it is re-opened.
“That’s what this is about. We just want the doors opened.”
This is the first in a two-part series surrounding the Slave Theater and the efforts of New Brooklyn Theater to purchase and restore it. Part-two will run on Thursday, September 20, and outline in greater detail "Who is NBT, and what is its vision for the Slave Theater?"