For 36 years, the theater appetite of Brooklyn, New York’s Bedford Stuyvesant community has been satisfied by The Billie Holiday Theatre, a nonprofit organization located at 1368 Fulton Street, inside Restoration Plaza.
Brooklynites — and anyone in the New York City area, for that matter — can go there for quality, mostly family friendly plays written, performed and directed predominantly by African-Americans. It’s a special treat when the theater’s executive director, the incomparable Marjorie A. Moon, directs a production.
The BHT was founded by Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. in May 1972 essentially to help revitalize Bedford Stuyvesant economically, physically, socially and culturally. It has staged more than 130 productions. Moon has been at the theater’s helm since 1975.
“Initially, BHT was a resident theater company that used a core group of actors, directors and designers who created a body of work that strived for and often met the goal of our standard artistic excellence,” she says. “As the years moved on and our core talent responded to the call of Hollywood and more remunerative employment, we found ourselves hiring actors on a per-show basis and looking at other designers.
In a way, the work was harder because we were dealing with new, unknown relationships; untested and untried.” Among the BHT talent that left for Hollywood are Debbie Allen, Tichina Arnold, Obba Babatundé, Samuel L. Jackson and Rondell Sheriden.
The Billie Holiday Theatre has continuously managed to meet and surpass artistic excellence, thanks largely to the creative atmosphere it fosters. “The atmosphere for the artist is a nurturing environment with runs that will allow them to explore and develop their role to the fullest extent possible. I think it’s a place, I hope, where the talented and trained artist seeks out to work and continues to grow,” Moon says. “It’s hard to break into theater in New York City, but I think we are accessible and desirable.”
No one agrees more with Moon than actor/director/playwright Jackie Alexander, who considers himself and his career a product of the BHT. His most recent work, Birthright, completed a successful 10-week run at the theater this summer. “BHT has been everything for me. Marjorie gave me a place to perform and we got paid, which is rare. I’ve never been treated better by her or the people in the audience. Everybody wants you to do well,” Alexander says.
Not only did Alexander grow as an actor at BHT, but Moon also gave him the opportunity to write and direct. “Marjorie Moon has been everything to me as an artist. And I know that story has been the same for many people who have come through BHT because you know everybody there is on your side,” Alexander says. He cites as examples Avan Littles, the theater’s production stage manager, who would read early versions of his scripts, and Moon herself, who attended his readings in the city. “They would give you freedom as a writer, along with the guidance you needed as a young writer. It’s been the place that has provided the opportunity to work, but it’s also home,” Alexander says.
Playwright Bless Ji Jaja, whose three productions, Birth, M and Barberdashers, played at the theater from 2002 to 2004, also raves about his BHT experiences. “It was great. It was very positive and gave me all the more confidence to take Barberdashers on the road,” he says.
The BHT gives Black playwrights an opportunity to have their voices heard through the production of their work, Jaja says. “Being a community theater, we know we are speaking directly to the audience that we want to speak to. When you are primarily writing for your people and it’s culturally specific, it is more enjoyable. The responses are head-on and it’s just great,” he says.
For playwright Lillie Marie Redwood, working at the BHT was a liberating experience. Three of her plays — Fool’s Gold, Imperfection Flawed, which won an Audelco Award for best play, and Know Thy Enemy — were produced by the BHT. “Marjorie was generous and supportive,” Redwood says. “She brought in the best costume and stage designers, so you knew you would get a quality production. Besides that, she’s hands-off, if you need anything she’s available. She never impeded my creative style.”
As someone who has performed in more than 10 BHT productions, Audelco Award-winning actress Yaa Asantewa, like so many others, attest to the theater’s importance to the Black community. “It gets rid of the myth that Black people do not go to the theater. It brings dignified theatre, not slapstick. We deal with subject matter that’s important. The BHT brings quality, respectful theater to the Black community; theater that the ancestors would be proud of,” she says.
Moon’s choices are deliberate. “I select productions that I trust and hope have a message; delivered in such a way that it has a visceral impact on the audience in a positive manner — transforming and uplifting,” she explains. In a personal message to the audience, she says: “God bless you and thank you. Please keep coming, you are why we are here.”
The message and delivery of BHT’s productions appear to be reaching the community in the right way, evidenced by the individuals and families who keep returning. “I come back because of the professional actors and the quality of the plays they do,” says Jeanette Bookhard, who has been a BHT member for 15 years and has seen more than 40 productions. “You get to experience everyday life from some of their productions.”
Information on the fall season at the BHT can be obtained from the Web site, www.thebillieholiday.org.