Depending on who you ask – and where you do the asking – the people on the forefront of the fight to save Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Slave Theater are a noble band of do-gooders, or an unwelcome group of outsiders trying to usurp the neighborhood’s legacy.
The first view was captured last Saturday night, as people filed into the mezzanine at the Flatiron Hotel for a fundraiser. Seven floors above, a theater director named Jonathan Solari took a break on the penthouse balcony and described his plans for the Slave Theater, a historic venue on Fulton Street. The property recently went into foreclosure and is scheduled to be sold in a court auction in early November.
Solari’s recently formed nonprofit organization, New Brooklyn Theater, is attempting to raise $200,000 — the amount required by the estate that owns the property to pay the tax liens and avoid the auction.
“There is a very short timeline,” Solari said.
New Brooklyn Theater launched a Kickstarter campaign on August 5 to raise the funds. The campaign ends on Thursday and is currently more than $160,000 short of its goal. If the goal isn’t reached in time, the organization will not get the money. Still, they remain confident, and say they’re in talks with developers – whom they are reluctant to name while negotiations are ongoing — who are interested in working with their organization.
“We’ll see how tonight goes,” Solari said. “But I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The Slave Theater was the vision of the late John Phillips, its original owner. Phillips was a community organizer and a Brooklyn Civil Court judge who purchased the building in 1982; at the time, it was called the Regent Theater. He renamed it to remind the community of the history of slavery, and regularly organized lectures by historians and activists. In 2004, when Phillips was growing old and living in a nursing home, his friend, Clarence Hardy, became the theater’s caretaker.
After a tangled legal battle following Phillips’ death in 2008, the court appointed his nephew, Rev. Samuel Boykin, as administrator of the Phillips estate – and with it de facto ownership of the theater. In August 2010, The Brooklyn Ink reported that Hardy had been evicted from the building. The eviction notice had come from Boykin, who lives in Ohio and, in a recent telephone interview, said that he hears little from his lawyers about the current status of the theater. Meanwhile, the Phillips estate owes $190,000 in liens on the building, and five groups have made formal offers to buy the property from the estate. Boykin said he’d prefer to sell to New Brooklyn Theater, but isn’t confident they’ll come up with the money.
In the mezzanine at the Flatiron Hotel, people in blazers and evening dresses who paid $25 apiece to support New Brooklyn Theater’s endeavor had a more positive outlook.
“I love it. I mean, I actually live in the neighborhood and it’s an amazing thing,” said Michael Tartaglia, a 25-year-old theater director. “That whole neighborhood is sort of turning over right now and revamping and it would be an amazing transition for the art scene there.”
“It’s just really exciting,” said Meaghan Sloane, a 25-year-old actress who lives in Astoria. “All my friends live in Brooklyn and somehow all the theaters are in midtown. I think it makes the pool of actors more excited.”
The scene stood in stark contrast with one that took place in Bedford-Stuyvesant two nights earlier. There, at a community forum convened by New Brooklyn Theater at Restoration Plaza on Fulton Street, residents condemned Solari’s group, accusing it of failing to involve the community.
One woman asked Solari if they’ve talked to the existing cultural institutions of Bed-Stuy.
“Yes,” Solari said.
“Which ones?” the woman asked.
“The Brooklyn Children’s Museum. We have a partnership with them through our…”
“That’s not in Bed-Stuy.”
“But they serve this community.”
The crowd grew loud, repeating that the museum is not in Bed-Stuy.
“The Billie Holiday Theater,” Solari said. “The Billie Holiday Theater, OK?”
Among those in the audience was Clarence Hardy, the theater’s former caretaker, who rose to talk about Phillips’ founding vision.
“His original plan was to bring cultural excellence and history coming out of the Slave Theater,” he said. “At one time we had some of the most dynamic historians the world has ever known, until the white power structure and the Jews…”
He trailed off. A few eyebrows raised at the comment, but no one responded vocally. Hardy went on. “Ya’ll plan is full of crap,” he said. “It’s not going to benefit the people that’ve been here for the last 20 years.”
Claudette Brady, a member of New Brooklyn Theater’s board of directors, responded, saying she’d like to see cultural education programs in the theater. She then explained the need for profit-generating entertainment events.
Several people questioned the background of the members of New Brooklyn Theater who were there. None were lifelong residents of Bed-Stuy, and only two were African American, and residents were concerned about who was taking ownership of the theater.
“I’m determined to keep it in black ownership,” said Kazembe Butts, a Bed-Stuy resident. “Not just some black people on the board. And that’s what is going to happen, it’s going to stay as a black institution.”
“We wouldn’t own it,” said Brian Kushner, the educational director of the group. “It’s a nonprofit organization.”
When the issue came up again, Solari stepped in. “The board of directors is not complete. How about that?” he said. “I’m open to that, I would love to hear that. This is why we’re gathered here today, to address those concerns. And I can say that we are not solidified and closed with our board of directors.”
Some in the audience remained unsatisfied. “If you want to help us navigate so that we can get the finances to do what we need to do, then be a support,” one woman said. “Don’t come in like missionaries.”
Other residents expressed dissatisfaction with New Brooklyn Theater’s intention to change the name of the venue to match its own.“Have you spoken with the community?” asked another resident, Shaheed Muhammad. “You already changed the name from ‘Slave.’ You don’t own it! But you changed the name. Why did you decide to change the name?”
Solari said the group came to the decision “in speaking with individuals within the community.”
Outside the meeting hall, as the forum came to a close, a resident named Atim p’Oyat, 27, said that she’s also unhappy with the proposed name change.
“I think the name they want to use is just another way of hiding the history behind slavery,” she said. “They say that people who don’t know their history can never move ahead. This is just another way to backtrack our race, in a sense, and to shun what’s taken place.”
Two nights later at the Flatiron Hotel fundraiser, the sentiment over the name change was altogether different. Lori Mannette, a 26-year-old Bushwick resident from North Carolina, said she thinks it is a good idea.
“I don’t know that you’re going to get a lot of Brooklynites going to a place with ‘slave’ in the name. But I don’t really know anything because I’m a poor little white girl,” she said. “I think ‘slave’ has no good connotation. I mean, maybe Britney Spears gave it a slight thing with [her song, ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’], but ultimately that’s only a negative connotation. Particularly for the African American community, which is thriving in Brooklyn.”
An artist named Ryan Schneider, 35, said that he used to have a studio in Bed-Stuy, and that when he first saw the theater, he thought, “Whoa. That’s like anti-white shit,” he said. “I was always intimidated by the building. It’s called the Slave; it’s in deep Fulton. Have you been there?”
On the penthouse balcony, Solari said that he’d soon be contacting the people who came to the forum in Bed-Stuy to further explain what New Brooklyn Theater hopes to do. “Passions got the better of some people,” he said of the meeting, “and I respect that.”
Solari still intends to change the venue’s name to New Brooklyn Theater. He said that when he goes to the theater and talks to members of the community, he often finds support.
“The majority of people that we’ve spoken to, who are long-standing members of the community, are troubled by that name,” he said. “And I think that Judge John Phillips’ intention of reminding people where their roots are was noble and accurate for the time. But before African Americans were slaves, they were African, and that should be celebrated.”
Outside the theater on a recent afternoon, Jerry Garrett, a 51-year-old lifelong resident of Bed-Stuy, said he’d like to see the theater restored, and isn’t concerned about the name. “I mean, the Slave, I remember when it was the Regent,” he said. “It was the movie theater. I remember way back then. I’ve been around here forever.”
Garrett also said he’s happy to see the neighborhood changing. “Everything is up and coming; it’s a whole different thing,” he said. “Everything is new now, so it’s good. My property value went up like crazy. I love it.”