Billie Holiday Theatre
Program: Access to Arts
Area of Work: Arts
Grant Purpose: General Support
The Obie and AUDELCO Award-winning Billie Holiday Theatre is a state-of-the-art creative campus and the only multi-platform performing arts center led by, for, and accountable to people of African descent in the largest African American community in the nation: Central Brooklyn and one of the last remaining theaters forged in the aesthetic and sociocultural kiln of America’s Civil Rights/Black Arts Movements. “The Billie” was founded in 1972 by Restoration (formerly Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation), America’s first community development corporation. The Billie Holiday Theatre was created as a space and platform for many notable and successful African American actors, writers, designers and musicians to develop their craft. Actors including Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen, and Tichina Arnold have performed at the Billie Holiday Theatre.
Purpose: To support The Billie Holiday Theatre’s 2019 and 2020 seasons and general support.
The centerpiece of the 2018-2019 season was the production of DOT, a comedy-filled drama about family, Alzheimer’s, and sacrifice written by Tony Award nominee Colman Domingo, directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon and starring Emmy Award winner Denise Burse.
In addition to presenting 28 performances of DOT, The Billie facilitated a series of post-show talk-backs with audiences to encourage dialogue and raise awareness of resources available both at Restoration and throughout the broader community. Specifically, The Billie partnered with AARP to host a post-show talk, “Alzheimer’s in the Black Community,” an important, but too often not discussed, topic. The AARP also distributed materials and liaised with audience members at senior matinees.
Future plans include production of Cheryl West’s AUDELCO and Blackburn Prize award winning Before it Hits Home, which explores family dynamics when a jazz musician who has never managed to make it big, has just been diagnosed with having the AIDS virus, while he is hiding his bisexuality. Though delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, The Billie plans to present 32 performances as well as a multi-pronged, community-centric set of programming, with post-show talk backs with the audience and pre-show panels about the rising rates of HIV in Brooklyn, the only borough that saw an increase after the five years of declining rates according to the Center for Disease Control.
DOT swept six AUDELCO nominations in 2019, including best lead actress for Denise Burse, best featured actress for Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, and best revival. AUDELCO, the Audience Development Committee, is an organization that acknowledges and honors Black Theatre and its artists in New York City.
Ms. Burse also presented excerpts and participated in a moderated discussion with The Billie’s Executive Director, Indira Etwaroo, at the Illumination Fund’s Arts in Health convening focusing on the Role of the Arts in Addressing Aging-Related Diseases.
The Billie was one of the first theatres in the country to pivot to online programming in the wake of COVID-19, and in its first six months its #StayatHome reading series garnered more than 75,000 views from across the country and across the world, with thousands more comments and shares. The Billie’s 2020 4th of July reading of Fredrick Douglass’ What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? was viewed by more than 4,500 people. Also during the summer of 2020, as Central Brooklyn endures the converging pandemics of COVID-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black communities and the senseless and racist murders that continue to take the lives of Black men, women and children in the U.S., The Billie organized New York City’s first Black Lives Matter street mural. Located on Fulton Street in front of the historic Billie Holiday Theatre, this collaboration between Councilmember Robert Cornegy, The Billie, local artists, and the community at large, has become a profound and powerful memorial to lives lost to racial violence: a place of anger, healing, and inspiration for moving forward to create a more just and equitable future.
The Billie will feature socially-distanced film screenings, spoken word events, community yoga, and its #StayatHome digital series online until it is feasible to relaunch programs in the theater.
Banner photo by Hollis King.