A small audience gathered at the Paul Robeson Theatre in Fort Greene on a recent Sunday afternoon. Some thirty people walked down several steps—over a dusty oriental rug and a cracked tile floor—and made their way into the musty, stone basement of the small community theater. They talked quietly as they settled into plastic folding chairs in the chilly basement facing a stage area on the floor. It was the final performance of Le Chateau, a drama set in a gentleman’s club in the early 20th century.
Demedrius Charles, who wrote Le Chateau, first staged the play at the Paul Robeson Theatre in 2010. Some nights during that run, he said, he had more than 80 people in the space. But over the three weekends Le Chateau was performed here, the audience was mostly friends and family of the cast and crew—no one from the community came. “I just think when people walk into the space they want to see a place that is taken care of,” Charles said. “I don’t think people from the neighborhood will ever come.” The history of the Paul Robeson Theatre is a drama in itself, and it is beginning to feel like a tragedy.
The Paul Robeson, which occupies an old, converted church on Greene Avenue, is easy to miss. Upstairs, behind stained glass windows, the theater’s main space remains unused, as it has for nearly 10 years. Dust and torn set pieces cover the floor. The 36-foot stage is filled with long-forgotten furniture and wooden panels. The 300 theater seats that once lined the floor are gone. On the ceiling, peeling blue wallpaper gives way to gaping holes, revealing the wooden beams of the roof’s foundation.
The theater opened in 1980, when a local physician and community activist, Dr. Josephine English, bought St. Casmir’s Roman Catholic Church at 40 Greene Avenue and transformed it. In the beginning, it was a thriving community theater that hosted plays and events of all kinds. Now, nearly two years after English’s death, with no funding coming in and almost no community engagement, her family must decide the Paul Robeson’s fate.
English was born in Virginia in 1920. She earned her medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1949, and came to New York to work at Harlem Hospital. In 1958 she opened an obstetrics and gynecology practice, making her the first African American woman to own a private ob-gyn clinic in New York state. She delivered thousands of babies in her more than 40 years in medicine, including Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s six daughters. But she also helped women who couldn’t afford her services. English’s niece, Joanne English Rollieson, said she “delivered a lot of babies and didn’t get paid.”
In 1979, English moved her business to Fort Greene, where she bought the Adelphi Hospital at 50 Greene Avenue, next door to the church that would become the Paul Robeson Theatre. English turned the building into the Adelphi Medical Center, a facility that eventually included a senior center, day care and after-school programs for children, housing for mentally challenged people and other services. She took advantage of the citywide economic downturn of the 1970s and bought other properties in Fort Greene, Bushwick, Crown Heights and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, accumulating what Rollieson described as “mass real estate holdings.”
At the time, Fort Greene was not the high-end brownstone community it is today. Roslyn Huebener, a Brooklyn realtor who moved to Fort Greene in 1985, remembers high crime rates in the ’80s. “You had beautiful housing, much of it in disrepair,” Huebener said. “You would have people urinate against your fence. If you put a plant on your stoop it would be stolen. If you were walking your dog you would be very, very careful late at night to see who was coming down your street.”
The blocks on which English bought property were no exception. Barry Sheppard, English’s son, who now owns the theater, remembers seeing prostitutes gather in front of the medical center at night. He said his mother’s efforts helped underprivileged residents and transformed the community. “There was a big flight out of here for middle class people,” Sheppard said. “She brought some stability to the area by staying. A lot of people were leaving, so she kind of kept some things alive in a neighborhood that, at the time, was going down pretty fast.”
Still, when English opened the Paul Robeson Theatre in 1980, the African American arts community in Fort Greene was thriving. The neighborhood had long had a strong black presence, since African Americans moved to the area in the 1840s, seeking jobs at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the 1970s, crime rates were high all over the city and housing prices had declined 13 percent across Brooklyn, giving middle class people willing to brave rough neighborhoods a chance to buy homes. Jazz musicians like Betty Taylor, Cecil Carter and Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, moved to Fort Greene and the surrounding neighborhoods for the housing and proximity to jazz clubs in the village. Spike Lee’s 1986 film, She’s Gotta Have It, which was shot and set in Fort Greene, helped to put the neighborhood on the map.
In the 1970s and ’80s Fort Greene exploded with art and culture of all kinds, produced primarily by young black artists. The strength of the arts community brought on comparisons to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and led to the creation of Fort Greene theater groups and other arts establishments, including Spike Lee’s 40 Acres a Mule Filmworks. In 1977 the Brooklyn Academy of Music presented the first installment of DanceAfrica, a showcase inspired by many styles of African dance.
That Fort Greene was experiencing a sort of renaissance, and that English was already a celebrated physician and community leader positioned the Paul Robeson Theatre well to enrich the African American theater world. At first, it did. Barry Sheppard noted that the Paul Robeson’s early plays were well attended by people from all over Brooklyn. Celebrities, including the actor, writer and director Ossie Davis, made appearances.
Despite the theater’s early success, things were not easy for English, who paid expenses for the theater and other properties out of pocket for years. Much of the trouble began soon after English opened the Adelphi Medical Center, when several business partners pulled out of the operation. In 1988 the city foreclosed the medical center at 50 Greene Avenue due to unpaid back taxes amounting to over $600,000, according to The New York Times. New York’s Department of General Services, which held the building title, allowed English to continue providing services there, but she missed payment deadlines, and by 1995, she owed $2.4 million in back taxes, penalties and interest. At the time, English said she had put $650,000 of her own money into 50 Greene Avenue. She said the city was collecting rent from tenants while she paid to maintain the building, according to Newsday. “I was always under-funded. I tried to do it by myself,” she told the Times in 1995. Members of the community, including Betty Shabazz, rallied to save the building, but it went up for auction with a starting bid of $294,000 in October of that year.
English’s struggles didn’t end with the foreclosure. She served as head of several realty companies, including English Sheppard Realty Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in 1999. According to a 2005 New York Daily News article, “City’s Tax Cheat Hall of Shame! Meet top 10 deadbeats ripping us all off,” in which English is listed as one of the 10, she owed $4.3 million in back taxes, with interest compounding daily at 18 percent, on an apartment building in Bushwick. At the time, Charles Simpson, English’s lawyer, who defended her for 25 years, told the Daily News, “She has a good heart. One could say she’s a lousy businessman.”
Simpson said English used the apartment buildings she owned to create affordable housing in Bushwick, and that it was her desire to support the community that led to financial difficulty. “She never gouged a tenant,” Simpson said. “There were rent increases she was entitled to that she never took because she knew affordable housing is the bedrock of the community. She wasn’t interested in money.”
English retired from medicine in the 1990s, and as other properties failed, the aging Paul Robeson Theatre began to fall into disrepair. “She wasn’t in a position to make the repairs,” Simpson said. “She would patch them as best she could with the money she had…until the day she died she was making repairs in attempt to keep theater open and available. The jewel in her crown was the Paul Robeson Theatre.”
At the same time, the neighborhood continued to change. By the mid-1990s, developers had begun to renovate run-down buildings, and housing prices in Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights had risen over 260 percent from years prior. Fort Greene experienced an influx of wealthy people attracted to the housing, the proximity to transportation and the culture of the up-and-coming area. Sheppard believes the transition the neighborhood has experienced contributed to the theater’s decline. “I guess possibly the black theater community as a whole…kind of faded somewhat,” Sheppard said. “I don’t know if everyone’s suffering…but when you do off-off-Broadway, there’s competition.”
In late 2011, about a month before English died, Joanne English Rollieson paid a visit to her then-91-year-old aunt at her home in Fort Greene. English had sold her house in Crown Heights to put money into the Paul Robeson Theatre, and was living at one of her properties on Adelphi Street. It was one of the last of Rollieson and English’s monthly meetings, which had started about a year prior. Rollieson, a real estate broker in Englewood, N.J., had begun to meet with English to advise her on her Brooklyn properties. Rollieson was helping her aunt at the request Rollieson’s father and English’s brother, Whittie English Jr., the first black real estate broker in Bergen County, New Jersey, and a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. “My dad had spent some time in Brooklyn helping her with her real estate,” Rollieson said. “He said, ‘You need to start going to Brooklyn and helping your aunt.’ He used to say, ‘She won’t listen to me, she won’t listen to me.’” When Mr. English died in 2006, Rollieson felt it was her duty to continue what he had started, and to use her knowledge of real estate to help. “We just had such history and such a strong legacy,” Rollieson said.
It was at that meeting in the fall of 2011 when English asked Rollieson to save the Paul Robeson. “One of the last things she said to me was, ‘You know, Joanne, you know that theater means a lot to me,’” Rollieson said. “She told me that she would love to maintain that theater out of all the properties she had.”
Determined to preserve the theater after English passed away in late December, Rollieson, Sheppard and other family members met with local politicians and sought grants from local theater groups. By then, though the theater had received official landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission earlier that year, it had lost its federal 501(c)(3) non-profit status, and the roof had begun to collapse. The theater began to rack up violations from the New York City Department of Buildings when the church’s parapet crumbled into a neighbor’s backyard in 2011.
The roof was repaired last year, but the damage in the main theater space remains extensive. Rick Davy, who began to work with the theater in 2010 and still serves as part-time managing director, estimates full repairs would cost several million dollars. “It’s going to take quite a bit to get it all together,” Davy said.
Sheppard has a “wish list” of repairs he’d like to make, including renovating the theater’s bathrooms and adding an HD sound system. But there are no donations coming in. “We’re getting good will, but in hard currency, no, not yet,” he said.
Sheppard would like to expand the theater’s limited offerings to establish the full cultural center he says English wanted. Meanwhile, Rollieson is open to any solution that makes the best use of the space. The family has received inquiries from several developers, including, most recently, one that suggested turning the upper level into condos and keeping the theater below.
Sheppard noted the need to put a strong management team in place. “I’m not going to be managing the place indefinitely,” Sheppard said. “I’m just trying to keep it together for a while until we can get to a better place. That’s my job right now. Keep it going.”
On a white wall in the basement of the Paul Robeson Theatre, past the single, unlit green light bulb hanging from an uncovered fixture in the entryway, past an electrical outlet detached from the wall, next to a mass of black curtains that forms a makeshift backstage area, there is a mural. A cityscape in orange, yellow and red dissolves into a tangle of tree roots. To its left, an elderly woman lifts a shirtless, faceless young man up from under his arms. Underneath are the words: “From every blade of grass to every seed in the wind we are responsible…a community is nothing without its roots.”