City cuts funding to 3 historic black theaters

Courtesy Negro Ensemble Company A scene from the original production of “A Soldier’s Play,” with Adolph Caesar, left, and Denzel Washington, center.

Courtesy Negro Ensemble Company
A scene from the original production of “A Soldier’s Play,” with Adolph Caesar, left, and Denzel Washington, center.

BY AMY RUSSO | After being regularly funded in past years, a trio of historical theaters of color have suddenly seen a key portion of their funding yanked by the Department of Cultural Affairs.

This year, New Heritage Theatre Group, New Federal Theatre and Negro Ensemble Company are all facing a funding gap. Due to entering the year without D.C.A. dollars, the performance venues will be dealing with a “significant funding shortfall,” said Karen Brown, executive director of Negro Ensemble Company, based at 303 W. 42nd St.

Woodie King, Jr., founder of New Federal Theatre, at 292 Henry St., explained that the venue had regularly received D.C.A. funds over the course of 25 years for its acting and playwriting workshop. However, the expected $15,000 will not be given this year to New Federal Theatre.

Alumni of these theater groups include an array of prominent actors, including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson.

Stories told through the theaters’ productions showcase the cultures of communities of color and their rich histories.

Voza Rivers is executive producer of the Harlem-based New Heritage Theatre Group, the city’s oldest black nonprofit theater.

“We’re more than presenters; we’re preservationists,” he said.
Rivers explained that the theater features stories about Harlem and the black diaspora, as well as plays from South Africa. The productions also include a “talk back” with the audience after the show to ensure that the stories are a reflection of what the community wishes to see.

Earlier this month, the three theaters requested and received the support of the Community Board 3 Arts and Cultural Affairs Subcommittee in their effort to restore their funding.

Each of these three organizations will be receiving city funding of more than $100,000 through the Coalition of Theatres of Color. Nevertheless, the theaters’ criticism of D.C.A.’s choice to cut off its funding stream to them remains strong.

King and Brown explained that C.T.C. was created in 2005 after protests by 10 black theaters that were not being funded by other sources. To rectify this issue, they worked with the New York City Council to establish a stream of funding through C.T.C. via the City Council. This system helps to narrow the financial gap felt by theaters of color. Some of the theaters, however, now feel this is being used as an excuse by D.C.A. to justify its funding cuts.

In an e-mail, Sade Lythcott, C.E.O. of the National Black Theatre and co-chairperson of C.T.C., stated, “Yes NFT will ABSOLUTELY be greatly affected & hindered especially because we are not allowed to apply or overlap programs & activities that are funded with CTC money, which means ALL programs applied for through DCA were COMPLETELY defunded by the city.”
Regarding D.C.A.’s slashing of its funding to Negro Ensemble Company, the agency claimed that the company’s plays were not in line with its mission.

In response, Brown stated, “We should be the ones to determine what is legitimate, what is valuable… .”

Brown added that these kind of determinations on the part of outside groups essentially leads to censorship.

“African-American, African-Caribbean artists, we have made a considerable contribution to the fabric of arts and culture in America and we continue to be relevant and important,” Brown said.

The allocation of city money from the D.C.A. Cultural Development Fund is decided by a peer panel review, which looks at the funding applications of each theater group and determines whether to recommend them for money.

In light of the defunding, Rivers commented, “What really captured the attention for us in the black community is that they defunded three of the oldest black theaters in New York at the same time with the same program officer.

“The program officer never visited our theaters,” he noted, “so you don’t have a person who could answer.”

Rivers remarked that the system is old and outdated, and that the panelists’ backgrounds were inadequate for them to be judging.

A discussion with King about the review revealed that, in the case of New Federal Theatre, not one African-American was on the panel and none of the panelists had attended a production or workshop at the theater.

In an official statement to The Villager, D.C.A. stated:

“Each year the Department of Cultural Affairs provides funding for public programming that represents the full breadth and diversity of our city’s cultural community. Over all, D.C.A. funds the vast majority of applicants, including many theater organizations that produce and present work reflective of the African diaspora. In addition to the substantial city funding these three groups are receiving, we are committed to continue working with them to develop competitive applications to the Cultural Development Fund that will provide New Yorkers with high-quality cultural programming.”

New Heritage Theatre Group and New Federal Theatre plan to appeal D.C.A.’s decision.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *