The National Black Theatre (NBT) is a non-profit cultural and educational corporation, and community-based theatre company that seeks "to produce transformational theatrical experiences that enhance African American cultural identity by telling authentic stories of the Black experience." Based in the Harlem neighborhood of the New York City borough of Manhattan, NBT was founded in 1968 by actress, director, producer, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. Teer purchased the 8,000 square foot theatre in 1969 at 9 East 125th street. In 1982, the NBT expanded to 64,000 square foot complex that houses two theatres, classrooms, and an African and Nigerian art gallery which currently resides on 5th Avenue in Harlem.
Dr. Teer founded the NBT with a goal of creating a "massive cultural and artistic movement to create people culturally literate." Teer viewed the African-American community as one that was in desperate need of an African cultural education. The company committed itself to representing and establishing "a black theatrical standard -- a standard based on black lifestyle."
Teer turned the theatre into a cultural incubator that provided shows and workshops to help promote respect for the African ancestry and for black self-expression. The NBT produced plays that were dedicated to raising the consciousness of the African-American community by crafting a distinct departure from White theatrical conventions. As Teer wrote in a critical essay, "You cannot have a theatre without ideology, without a base from which all of the forms must emanate and call it Black, for it will be the same as Western theatre, conventional theatre, safe theatre."
Notable productions performed at the NBT included Ritual, Change! Love Together! Organize! A Revival, Five on the Black Hand Side, The Believers, Softly Comes a Whirlwind, Whispering in Your Ear, and A Soul Journey into Truth. Distinguished artists that have performed at the NBT include Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni.
After Teer died in 2008, her daughter Sade Lythcott took over as CEO and to this day continues her leadership over the theatre.
Once Sade Lythcott took over the role as CEO, one of the first challenges that was faced was the threat of the foreclosure of the theatre. NBT was involved in various disagreements in regards with surrounding business including with the Applebee's franchise. These disputes had since been resolved. The disputes has resulted in an over $10 million debt including their previous debts but was relieved when Baltoro Capital Management took over in the spring of 2012. Since then, the management company has promised to keep the theatre rent-free even if the building was ever sold.
National Black Theatre v. Applebee's Law Case
In April 2009, Nubian Partners signed a lease with Apple-Metro which is an Applebee's Franchisee. The franchise was planning to take on a lease in the building the National Black Theatre was located. Barbara Ann Teer sold 49 percent of the property to Nubian Partners, which operates multiple retail outlets within the building.
Ms. Teer brought forth the case in early 2008, before her passing, arguing that Applebee's did not promote the cultural integrity mission that the theatre promoted. This was a condition she included when she signed the real estate partnership agreement with Nubian in 2002 when the theatre was threatened by foreclosure.
The case was brought to Justice Walter B. Tolub, a judge for the New York County Supreme Court (Civil), who ruled that leasing part of the building to Applebee's would be violating the contract between the two parties, National Black Theatre and Nubian Partners. On the afternoon of 15 July 2009, the State Supreme Court justice ruled that the Applebee's chain is not allowed to move into the building with the National Black Theatre. Raymond Hannigan, the lawyer at Herrick Feinstein representing the National Black Theatre, proudly states that " think Barbara Ann Teer would be pleased to see this decision and see that this landmark location remained dedicated to African-American arts" after the case was concluded.
Teer founded the National Black Theatre to "bring validation to a group suffering from the negative effects of cultural hegemony." The NBT's mission is develop new cultural leaders who will bring "dignity, autonomy, self-love, and entrepreneurial artistry into the community of who they serve." The 6 goals of the NBT are as follows:
- To create and perpetuate a standard of Black art,
- To eliminate the competitive aspects of most commercial theatre,
- To re-educate audiences,
- To restore the spirituality and cultural traditions that have been stripped from Blacks in America,
- To create an alternate system of values from the Western concept, and
- To create a Black theory of acting and liberation.
Awards and recognition
Over the course of more than 300 productions, the National Black Theater has earned more than 45 AUDELCO Black Theatre Excellence Awards, and continues to be a successful institution of African-American theater.
By 1986, the theatre was recognized as one of the most important arts institutions in America by President Ronald Reagan. Former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo acknowledged The National Black Theatre as "one of New York State’s greatest cultural treasures and resources and a cornerstone for the revitalization of 125th Street."
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