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.
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 staged “Purlie Victorious” at the Center in 1999. Even the legendary actor Ossie Davis (the playwright of “Purlie Victorious”, seen here with then-Center Recreation Director Steven Sneed) visited Seattle and the Center and encouraged its work with local artists.
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