The new designation was celebrated last week before the Thanksgiving holiday with a ceremony at the corner where Barnett founded and led the theater from 1969 until it lost funding and was closed in 1980. Barnett passed away last year at the age of 88.
“I had none,” said Tee Dennard tells CHS of his acting experience before finding Black Arts/West Theatre. “I came out here on a bet — on an audition. And I got the part.” Denard eventually became artistic director and has enjoyed a lifetime as a working actor.
It was that kind of opportunity and experience that drove Barnett to create the theater as part of the Central Area Motivation Program anti-poverty effort.
“Our first performance was free at the Douglass-Truth Library on a Sunday afternoon,” Barnett wrote about the modest early days for the theater. “It was graciously received and in the social hour afterwards, the signs were all there that the community loved the presentation of material relevant to their lives.”
Barnett also wrote about the beginning of the theater having its own space in the Central District:
We took occupancy of the theater on April 1, 1969 and named it Black Arts/West. We dispensed with the usual mission statement. Our avowed goal was to “Educate, Enlighten, and Entertain.” The joy of having one’s own theatre was muted by the responsibilities attendant to maintaining the facility. Since a lack of funds prevented us from hiring a janitor, the duties fell on me. During the first two years I was a virtual prisoner of the theater, coming in early in the morning, cleaning the bathrooms and dressing rooms prior to performances, and taking care of any other needs. Sometime in our second year, we tapped into a federal program providing jobs for low income residents and hired our first part time janitor — one of our actors!
At Wednesday’s ceremony to honor Barrett and the new honorary street, there was a pouring of libations to honor those who had come before and speakers talked about their efforts “to keep Black theater alive” and the growing effort to mark the history of arts and culture in the Central District.
Sharon Williams of the Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District thanked the city and Councilmember Kshama Sawant for helping designate the street.
The naming, she said, is “an opportunity when gentrification has moved some of our people out” to say, “Oh! Not today!”
“We have been here, and we will remain here historically and in the future,” Williams said.
You can learn more about the Historic Central Area Arts and Cultural District here.
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