Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute: 40 Years of Black Performing Arts History in Seattle, Washington

Editor's note: today's blog post is written by guest blogger Lisa Myers Bulmash.

It is nice to point out heroes of color during Black History Month, like legendary poet/playwright/author Langston Hughes, but as readers of the Black Past blog well know, black history is something everyday people create, every day. For the past four decades, the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI) has created performing arts history vital to the Seattle African American and Diaspora community

Synagogue Bikur Cholim
The Institute seems to have always been part of the Central Area, and, in a way it has: its landmark building was originally erected as the Chevra Bikur Cholim congregation's synagogue and dedicated in 1915. At that time, the Central Area was a mostly Jewish neighborhood with some residents of black, Japanese, and Scandinavian heritage.
More black people began to move to Seattle during World War II, but were restricted to the Central Area by job and housing discrimination. It took long-term challenges from dozens of Seattle civil rights activists and thousands of demonstrators and protestors of all racial backgrounds in the 1960s for the city and state to improve housing, educational and recreational opportunities for blacks and other people of color.

By the late 1960s many of these activists, including most prominently Walter Hubbard, Jr., sought a chance to establish a cultural center in the Central Area.  That chance arrived in 1968. The congregation of Bikur Cholim sold its synagogue to the City of Seattle as many of its members migrated out of the area south to Seward Park and east to Mercer Island and other suburbs. In 1969 Walter Hundley and Seattle’s leading anti-poverty organization, the Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP) created an unusual partnership with the City of Seattle. CAMP utilized the City's federal urban renewal funding to help create the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center.

LHPAI exterior
The Center was managed by Seattle Parks and Recreation Department as an African American-focused community center.  Its founders however, had another purpose in mind; the Center would also be an arts organization that would serve as a venue for plays, poetry readings, and other performance art.  Then as now, the Center also offered art classes, hosted organizations like the Madrona Youth Theatre, and rented out its performance and meeting space. But there was always tension between the twin foci of the Center. One early Center advisor captured that tension when she described it as “a recreation center that does not do basketball.”
Montlake School, 1975

Despite these conundrums, by the early 1970s the Cultural Arts Center became the major force shaping Seattle's African American arts scene, cultivating and promoting numerous local performing artists. These performers included local actors Umeme and  Kibie Monie. The center also became a focal point for out-of-town talent who began arriving in the 1980's. Among these were Jacqueline Moscou who acted and directed in several productions and director Michelle Blackmon, who, in 1999, staged “Purlie Victorious” (by playwright and legendary actor Ossie Davis seen here with then-Executive Director Stephen Sneed).
Steve Sneed with Ossie Davis

In 2001, the Seattle Parks Department, recognizing the growing importance of the Cultural Arts Center’s role in the local performing arts scene, approved a reorganization plan to focus more strongly on this part its mission.  That reorganization included a name change to the “Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.” This change brought in Jacqueline Moscou as its first artistic director. She staged several theatrical productions, including "Death of a Salesman" with an all-black cast in 2005. (This innovation was not repeated on a major scale until the 2009 Yale Repertory Theatre production, starring Charles Dutton). The new Center adopted a dance company-in-residence and started an artist-in-residence program. The Center also launched its annual film festival in 2003, expanding the event's duration from three to nine days in 2007.

The weight of all that history took a structural toll, forcing a building closure from 2010 to 2012 for seismic and electrical renovation. Since its reopening in 2012 as the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI), the organization has continued to offer authentic African American and Diaspora performing arts to all of Seattle. LHPAI transferred from the parks department to the Office of Arts and Culture in 2013 and has established a dance company-in-residence as well as an artist-in-residence program. Royal Alley-Barnes, LHPAI's executive director since 2009, increased infrastructure resources, community connections, and emphasis on the mission to ensure the focus on local and grassroots artists continues. The institute also offers winter and summer performing arts academies, ongoing educational opportunities, and a new website. This February marks the institute's first Black History Month back in its home of more than forty years, an occasion worth celebrating.  We invite all who are interested to come to the new Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.

Photo credits: Synagogue Bikur Cholim: WA State Jewish Historical Society; LHPAI exterior: Joe Mabel; Montlake School 1975: Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute; Steve Sneed with Ossie Davis: LHPAI


Inspiration from Young Classical Musicians

Chevalier de Saint-George, 1745-1799
The idea of classical music and musicians often conjures up images or thoughts of dead white males, stodgy citizens at gala events, or a sense of irrelevance to modern cultural life. Nothing could further from the truth in any of the above categories!  February has been designated in the US as Black History Month and even though, as far as is concerned, every month is Black History Month, in celebration of this particular month, is offering a special focus on Classical Music in the context of African Americans and people of African descent. (For previous Black History Month specials on, link to this page.)

The website has compiled biographies of 67 classical musicians and a list of Black Classical Artists on YouTube. There is so much interesting information in all of these categories, be sure to check them out and share with family and friends!

Marian Anderson String Quarter
Any art form with a rich tradition can only remain vibrant as long as new, young talent is nurtured and blossoms. This is especially true of classical music in the face of the emergence of wildly popular, easily accessible new musical genres. New young classical musicians require the support of organizations and individuals willing to perform these mentoring roles. An impressive list of these groups, institutions, festivals, as well as a list of artists can be found at this website. For instance, The Marian Anderson String Quartet performs widely across the US and at each venue they give classes and perform in schools, showcasing their talent and being great role models.
From South Africa there are a number of fabulous young opera singers, including Nkosazana Dimande; there are many videos of her performances on YouTube.

 To understand the attraction and importance of opera in the life of a new young star, listen to this compelling TEDxTeen interview with Mteto Maphoyi:
All of these musicians, and all of those linked at, have stories to share, joy to express,  and an abiding care and respect for their craft, as  well as a desire to make sure this rich heritage continues. Spend time perusing, and a remarkable 400 year, four continent legacy will unfold. Perhaps more young people will be inspired to seek out this knowledge and feel that they have a long line of  fellow travelers who will support and guide them.