Have you ever witnessed something that made you feel blessed—like you and your people were seen in a way that was not happening before? Like the stories, acting, and creative talents of Black people were being put in the forefront, and allowed to have a venue where they not only had a chance to show their greatness, but were able to use the venue as a steppingstone in their careers?
I am so happy to say that I know of such a place. I know of a place where Black stories, playwrights, directors, sound designers, set designers, lighting designers, hair and wig stylists, and all creatives have been able to go to for 50 years and get their first taste of theater. That is the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn. For 50 years, the Billie Holiday Theatre has been on an amazing mission, and it continues: The theatre recently celebrated 50 years in the Bedford Stuyvesant community (1368 Fulton Street) with the “World Premiere of Black Genius in the American Theater: A Concert Reading.”
“Black Genius in the American Theatre: A Concert Reading” was superbly hosted by Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Harry Lennox. The fabulous program included excerpts from six productions that got their start at the Billie Holiday Theatre and highlighted a play per decade from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, and 2010s.
I so enjoy when my people are doing what they do best and rising to the occasion, and that is exactly what happened during this marvelous theater celebration.
The first excerpt came from “Over Forty” by Celeste Walked and featured four women who had a lot to say and said it with a sauciness, passion, energy, and joy that was the perfect way to start off the performances. It set an amazing standard of excellence that was maintained throughout the program. In addition to dialogue, they also performed brief moments from classic songs like “In the Still of the Night.” The dynamic, gifted actresses were Pauletta Washington, Denise Burse, Peggy Alston, and Shani Tabia, who made her Billie Holiday debut—and it was a very impressive one.
Up next was “Inacent Black and the Five Brothers” by A. Marcus Hemphill. Alston as Mama Rydell delivered her monologue with tenderness, humor, and the frustration of a widow who doesn’t know how to raise her sons now that her husband has died. She also is a woman in pain, regretting his choice to put himself in harm’s way the night he lost his life. In another excerpt from this classic play, the audience was treated to some humorous moments, some going-to-church moments, and an engaging introduction to “Inacent Black” spiritedly played by Tabia. Donald Hinson was marvelous as Marv Rydell, a man trying to look out for the innocence and naïve young woman who got off the bus at New York City’s Port Authority. Terrence Riggins was a smooth-talking MacDaddy as Pretty Pete. Joyce Sylvester played the Waitress in the scene.
The Billie Holiday Theatre has not only been a place for new playwrights to present and hone their work; it has touted the work of some of the greatest Black writers, such as Langston Hughes and his play “Tamborines to Glory,” which was also part of this event. The play tells the story of two poor Black women, Laura and Essie (played by Burse and Washington), who decide that the best way to make money in Harlem is to start a church on the street to save the sinners. Essie believes in making money by any means necessary, while Laura truly wants to help people come to Jesus, but won’t mind taking their money as well. The supportive cast in the very funny excerpt included Hinson and Tabia.
“The Past Is the Past” by legendary playwright Richard Wesley was delivered through a riveting excerpt that showcased the phenomenal talents of actors Billy Eugene Jones and Kim Sullivan. Jones played Eddie Green and Sullivan played Earl Davis. Set in a pool hall, it is the story of a son who is meeting his absentee father for the first time. Eddie has many questions to ask Davis; he just wants answers and a connection that he has missed his entire life. Jones and Sullivan took these characters to great heights. This play was a commentary on the relationship between absentee fathers and their children, and what I appreciated is that it told the story from both perspectives. This play leaves you jarred, but also allows you to have a different understanding of this issue.
The next play was one that I saw in the original production and thoroughly enjoyed: “Faith On Line” by Joyce Sylvester. In the two excerpts, Higgins played Abdul and Hinson played Taylor. These men are on opposite sides of the gentrification issue in Harlem. Taylor wants his sister to sell their late father’s brownstone and get out of Harlem, while Abdul, her troubled boyfriend, wants her to keep it and fight for Blacks to stay in their Harlem. Abdul delivered one of the most powerful speeches against gentrification in Harlem you would have the chance to hear. This speech has ancestors, history, Black inventors, our accomplishments and pride vibrantly flowing throughout. The words are inspiring and proclaim our power and our glory if We Stand Together! Sylvester demonstrated her talent as a gifted playwright with this piece. To hear her words spoken by Higgins just made my heart glad.
An excerpt from “Brothers from the Bottom” by Jackie Alexander featured the awesome talents of Alston as Malika and Sullivan as her husband Chris, as they struggle with gentrification in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As they disagreed about whether to sell or not, they brought the love, the heat, and the confusion to life that people felt as companies tried to come in and get the people who had stayed in their homes to sell out. I love to see seasoned actors do their thing.
An added pleasure of the event was Phyllis Yvonne Stickney dramatically and flawlessly reciting Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” as Forces of Nature’s Tina Bush and Jason Herbert performed gorgeous interpretative dance moves. There was power, conviction, determination, joy, pride, and affirmation that made the spirit rejoice.
The final excerpt was from the timeless play “Old Settler” by John Henry Redwood. This play, about two elderly sisters in Harlem who take in a roomer to pay the rent, is a favorite for many. Washington was delightful and a breath of fresh air as Elizabeth. Burse was feisty and funny as her sister Quilly. Jones was enchanting as Husband, their roomer, delivering the character—a naïve country guy—splendidly. Tabia totally fit the bill as Lou Bessie, showing her priorities as happy to be in Harlem, loving the nightlife, the money, and the men. This story is a love story in different ways, and a story that stays with you as all six excerpts represent plays that do just that.
Throughout the event, the names of the famous alumni were not only announced, but video messages came from them as well, including Samuel L. Jackson and Tashina Arnold, with each person fondly remembering their time at the theater.
As each excerpt took place, a large black-and-white photo of the original production stars was displayed. Many renowned people from the industry have had a hand in the Billie Holiday Theatre, including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samm Art Williams, Debbie Allen, Woodie King Jr., Ken Roberson, Count Stovall, Peter Jay Fernandez, Stephanie Berry, and many others. The politicians who assisted along the way were also acknowledged, including Robert Kennedy, Marty Markowitz, Shirley Chisholm, Ed Townes, Major Owens, Charles Barron, Annette Robinson, and current NYC Mayor Eric Adams.
The history of the theater was discussed, from its first funding to the renovation and reopening. Director emeritus Marjorie Moon delivered a heartfelt video message with grace, love, and humility. I encountered this amazing woman for many years at the helm of the Billie Holiday Theatre and she was a beautiful, committed guiding force who saw it through so many journeys.
Be a part of our history and support this cherished institution in Bed-Stuy that always puts Blacks telling our story first.
For more info, visit www https://thebillieholiday.org.