Why Black Theaters Still Matter in 21st Century America
Think of the Apollo Theater. Now imagine if it never existed. There would never be ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ — remember Sandman Sims removing bad contestants from the stage with a cane? — and stars like Marvin Gaye, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, Ne-Yo and Aretha Franklin wouldn’t have had the opportunity to showcase their extraordinary talents on the come-up. One hundred years later, black theaters like this and many others are a necessity in 21st century America.
Historically, black theaters were once thriving centers for African-American music lovers and artists who were banned from white-only theaters during segregated times in America. This is no longer an issue, so why do these theaters still matter since African-American artists can perform anywhere today as long as they are bringing in the green?
For one, without them, popular music would be missing critical game-changing and rising voices from its landscape. Even in the present, these theaters still serve an important role in discovering and supporting rising talent as they once did in the past, especially for R&B and hip-hop artists.
These special beacons of culture throughout the southern and northern cities, also known as the “chitlin circuit,” were the most important, yet not always linked to launching and supporting legendary careers in jazz to present-day R&B and hip-hop legends. From Ella Fitzgerald to Stevie Wonder to Lauryn Hill — even though L. Boogie did not win — these artists all had their start at amateur night at the Apollo Theater, just one of the stops on what is also known as “the chitlin circuit.”
In recent times, rapper Machine Gun Kelly caught the attention of the rap world after winning back-to-back victories at the Apollo Theater in 2009. He was then approached by Diddy himself, who signed him to Bad Boy Records. Ne-Yo was even booed by audience members while performing with his former group Envy, years before becoming a Grammy-winning solo artist. And Chris Brown‘s protege, R&B princess Sevyn Streeter, also won amateur night at the Apollo when she was 10-years-old. It is no doubt that future artists will continue to gain exposure here.
To dig even deeper in the hip-hop and R&B time capsule, one can find a gold mine of hip-hop performances that went down during ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ in the 1990s, including Nas, Notorious B.I.G., DMX and Jodeci. Audiences — both black and white — across the nation could watch the television show to see some of their favorite artists perform weekly, even if they weren’t actually inside the Harlem, N.Y., venue.
Unfortunately, the Apollo Theater was one of the only venues in a big city in the African-American theater network that was able to keep its doors open. The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia shuttered their doors before the hip-hop era emerged, missing out on an opportunity to showcase those artists who would have no doubt performed at these venues.
But all of this is changing as community members in both cities are working to raise money to revive the cultural experiences that once took place within these buildings. The Howard Theatre had a successful grand re-opening in 2012, where rapper Wale made history as the first artist to perform at the Howard Theatre in his native hometown. Within its first month, the location also brought the Roots and Esperanza Spalding to the stage.
Newbie artists expected to perform at the theater this year include XXL freshmen class alumn Hopsin, singer Mack Wilds and rapper Young Thug. The theater is also bringing back veteran players in the game such as Slick Rick, Rakim and SWV. It’s clear the Howard Theatre is making up for lost time by once again providing a space for an array of artists from the past and present.
“A lot of artists were discovered at the Howard Theatre first. So it needs to reclaim its place in history and unfortunately because the Howard was dormant for 35 years, it has lost a lot of that,” Roy “Chip” Ellis, president of Ellis Development Group tells The Boombox. His firm formed the non-profit organization that raised money for the venue’s revitalization.
The Supremes, one of the biggest groups of all-time, have performed all over the world. But it was at the Howard Theatre where they made their debut, outside their hometown of Detroit in 1962. Also a young D.C. native, Marvin Gaye, took the stage at this venue before he become an international success.
The race riots in D.C. in 1968, after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination left the Howard Theatre in bad shape — it closed in 1970. But a $29 million renovation of the building reopened its doors in April 2012. The Howard first opened in 1910, as the first venue for African-Americans in the country. “From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s really been sort of a revival of that square block,” Ellis continues.
Going north on the circuit, similar efforts are being made to bring back the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, which was built in 1927. Sam Stiefe, who owned the Howard Theatre and Baltimore Royal Theatre, bought the Uptown in 1951. It soon became another stop on the African-American venue network.
In its heyday, Smokey Robinson, the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes all performed, according to Linda Waters Richardson, president of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation.
The Uptown, a mid-sized theater, was a launching pad for many artists who had dreams of performing on bigger stages. “If you could perform at the Uptown then you could perform at the Apollo and make it into the mainstream,” Richardson explains.
In the mid-1990s, the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation bought the abandoned venue and raised $1.3 million towards renovating its six floors and creating an office space, artist loft and a technology center. The non-profit is still looking to raise another $5 to $8 million dollars towards preserving the theater’s auditorium.
“[There is interest] in preserving both the architecture and the history of R&B of the theatre so the younger people cannot only appreciate it, but to also give them a stage as the next generation of performers,” she details.
Richardson says the Uptown will serve as a place for young people in the area to learn skills in the entertainment business, both behind the scenes and onstage — similar to the way the location served rising artists in the past.
If the Uptown Theatre could mimic the revival success of the Howard Theatre, then it would be no surprise to see the likes of the Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and others making appearances at the venue to help reclaim its history.
An important stop in the jazz history scene, the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, Ind., went through a similar decline in the 1970s. It was restored by community fundraising efforts and reopened in 1988. Madame C.J. Walker, regarded as the first female self-made millionaire in America, developed the building that first opened to the public in 1927 — eight years after her death. It became a thriving attraction for African-Americans up until the 1950s.
“We have had many legends develop ‘down on the Ave’ and playing at the Walker,” says Sherell Robinson, the theater’s project manager. “From natives such as Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard, to current national legends as Ramsey Lewis and Dee Dee Bridgewater to local legends Gregg Bacon and Bryan Thompson [an amazing high school saxophonist].”
Not all of these establishments were able to bounce back. Some have been demolished, such as the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, which closed in 1971 after being open for business for 50 years. Efforts to create a memorial near the lot where the building once stood was in the works in 1999, according to the Baltimore Sun. Those plans have not been executed yet.
The popular Club De Lisa, also known as the “Harlem of Chicago,” is another lost treasure that once stood in the South Side of the Windy City and closed its doors in February 1958, after 25 years. A documentary about the club’s history is being created by the owners’ family, according to a Facebook page dedicated to the film.
Legend has it that the “chitlin circuit,” the name for this string of theaters, comes from the fact that some venues sold the southern soul food dish during shows. The term was used as part of black vernacular and not always preferred because some thought it indicated “second-classness,” according to a report by NPR.
Whatever you call them, there is nothing unavailing about these beacons of culture. As we marvel at an era that has passed away in music, it is inspirational to see how greatness arose from a time of oppression. Due to the unique circumstances faced by African-American artists, these performance spaces can never recreate the same magic from its history, but that doesn’t mean the future of these venues are not worth paying attention to.
Yes, Jay Z can now sell out eight night shows at the Barclays Center for its grand opening, a feat not just any rapper can score. But before his freedom to take on large arenas, black theaters were humble beginnings for artists like him, paving the way for his success.
Amateur nights, like at the Apollo Theatre, are a stepping stone for fresh talent to showcase their music, even if it is for a few minutes — as Ne-Yo and Machine Gun Kelly once did. Artists like Mack Wilds would not be able to headline the same spaces in Washington, D.C,. if classic soul performers such as Chaka Khan and Roy Ayers never had the first opportunity to do so. Other venues like the Madame Walker Theater in Indianapolis still serve their city by preserving authentic jazz culture. And kids with big dreams in the entertainment world can hone their talents and skills at spaces like this, as the Uptown Theater does for its youth.
Black theater is an integral part of the musical landscape today, especially when all are welcome to take in the sites and sounds these landmarks have to offer. As long as these theaters are supported by those who remember its legacy, their doors can and will remain open.