Will Empire State ‘Rob’ Victoria Theatre Selection?

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Last year hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who wanted to see Melvin Van Peebles’ ‘Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death,’ were denied the opportunity. The Classical Theater of Harlem, which staged the production, had to shut down performances after a few weeks though it was still showing to a packed house.

The six-year old theater, on 141st Street has staged more than 20 plays— Caligula, Native Son, Medea, Trojan Women, Romeo & Juliet, and many other plays—before 40,000 people since its founding. It’s tapped and developed young uptown talent; some have gained global acclaim and won prizes such as the prestigious Audelco Award. Ironically, because of its success, the theater’s rapid growth may sputter unless it can find adequate space to prevent the premature closing of plays such as Van Peebles.’ “You can’t have theater without real estate,� says Alfred Preisser, a co-founder of CTH and Artistic director. “There were numerous successful plays that could not continue despite the desire of the audiences to see the play and of the actors and the production companies to continue the play due to the lack of availability of space. “Van Peebles play could have continued for several more weeks,� he adds. Van Peebles burst into global notoriety with his phenomenal indie, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,� in 1971.

CTH rents space from Harlem School of Arts (HSA), where Preisser also teaches. HSA has been the incubator and launching point for the National Black Theatre and the Dance Theater of Harlem. CTH hopes to follow a similar trajectory.

CTH has limited flexibility because unlike midtown Manhattan, Harlem has no legitimate off-Broadway sized theaters, which typically are either 99-seats or 199-seats. The Apollo, on 125th Street, has 1,500 seats and Aaron Davis Hall at 135th Street and Convent Avenue, has 800. Generally, the more the number of seats, the higher the theater’s Union-controlled pay scale and required bond posting. Producing a play like Van Peeble’s on a union contract at Aaron Davis Hall would cost $2.5 million, Preisser notes. CTH’s own theater has up to 137 seats, depending on the configuration in each play staged. “We are at a point where our continued survival and growth depends on us finding a theater where we are a primary tenant,� Preisser adds.

There is a golden opportunity for CTH to land the right home—but it all depends on which of the remaining four bids to redevelop the State-owned Loews Victoria Theater on 125th is selected. In theory, the Governor Pataki-controlled Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and the Harlem Community Development Corporation (HCDC), a grassroots organization and subsidiary of ESDC both have a say in selecting the winning developer’s bid. In reality, some HCDC members say the State agency wants to select its own favored bid. “There seems to be some kind of power struggle of some sort between these two entities,â€? says a person familiar with the bid selection process. “It should be a community-controlled decision and people in that structure should make the decision and there is some indication that ESDC is going to strong-arm that decision.â€?  

As proof that the State agency wants to impose its will, critics point to the dismissal last week of Diane P. Philpotts, president of HCDC by the State. She was accused of mismanagement but her supporters contend she was victimized because of her support for a Victoria redevelopment bid that is also favored by other members of the HCDC and by CTH. Separately, State Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, who is a candidate for Manhattan borough President and sits on the HCDC board, has been bitterly critical of the State agency. He has accused ESDC of “plantationism,� by not consulting HCDC. Critics fear that if the Empire State Development Corporation doesn’t judge the bids on the merit, CTH and other similar Harlem organizations will be deprived the opportunity to land a permanent home offered by some of the proposals. A person familiar with the workings of ESDC, who did not want to be identified disputed Wright’s contention and said that HCDC would have “final say� on the selection.

Some of the four remaining proposals call for an Intercontinental hotel, Blockbuster Videos and other major-brand retail outlets but does not address the community’s need for a theater, supporters of CTH contend. On the other hand, a proposal by the Danforth Development Partners specifically includes two new theaters for groups such as CTH, the Bill T. Jones Company, the Harlem Arts Alliance, and a home for the Jazz Museum. The Danforth plan also includes a 90-room Ian Schrager hotel and a new Savoy ballroom that hosts 300 people. “We really see the programming of spaces 12 months a year,� says Hodges Michelle Y. Hodges, fundraising and development specialist at CTH. “So it really is a cultural hub, a destination for the arts in Harlem. So it’s just not the Classical Theater of Harlem. It will include other groups and the Harlem Arts Alliance.�

Additionally, without off-Broadway plays, Harlem will continue to miss out on very substantial potential revenues. “The off-Broadway theater industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the City of New York every year and the Harlem community has not been a part of that,� Hodges says. “There are a number of reasons for that but one of the main reasons is a lack of viable performance spaces.�

For years CTH has taken pride in being able to provide the Harlem community with tickets ranging in price from $19 to $25; most midtown theaters charge about $50. CTH’s moderate ticket prices come at a cost. “Production that has the quality that CTH has been able to deliver is not cheap,� adds Ronald Simons, one of the actors, noting that the plays typically have several actors. “Our costs are rising and it’s important for us to be able to not only find the funding but a place, a home where we can generate more money. At the end of the day if you run a show for four weeks, the numbers show you just can’t make up the investment that it took, you need to have a place where you can extend the run.�

One of CTH’s leading performers is Zora Howard, who has performed in Germany and other countries and won the Audelco Award in 2004 as “an outstanding emerging talent.� CTH is famous for improvising plays for contemporary appeal. “We do a modern interpretation that grows out of the company,� Preisser, the co-founder adds. “Even when we do Caligula it’s performed with a modern interpretation with several actors. Our Caligula was really an event for us to speak about hip hop culture and our moment as an American Empire.� CTH’s Caligula was written by Preisser and Randy Weiner.

Whether these innovations, the nurturing of African American talent, maintaining affordable tickets and attracting theatergoers to Harlem survives depends on the bid selection. Will Harlem residents continue enjoying plays such as Van Peeble’s; or will their hopes be dealt unnatural deaths? The eyes of the Harlem community are trained on the Pataki-controlled Empire state agency’s next move.

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