National Black Theatre, a Harlem mainstay, is struggling to stay afloat

Company launched careers of Samuel L. Jackson and Patti LaBelle. But cash is  running short.

(from left) Danny Johnson, Terrell Wheeler and Jaime Lincoln Smith in “The Last Saint on Sugar Hill.”

(from left) Danny Johnson, Terrell Wheeler and Jaime Lincoln Smith in “The Last Saint on Sugar Hill.”

One of Harlem’s most important incubators for cultivating black talent is  trying to make sure its 45th season isn’t its last.

The National Black Theatre, which catapulted local actors such as Samuel L.  Jackson and Michael K. Williams (“12 Years a Slave”) to Hollywood fame, is  facing a real-life drama of its own, from financial struggles, dwindling grants,  and constant costs from maintaining its aging building on Fifth Ave.

The current CEO, Sade Lythcott, the daughter of the theater’s late founder,  Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, told the Daily News that keeping productions rolling is  “such a challenge on a daily basis.”

“It’s the biggest problem of our lives, because we’re underfunded,” said  Lythcott, 34.

This season, Lythcott and her aide Jonathan McCroy, 27, have launched  several new initiatives, including a playwright residency, reading series, and  showcases that feature local painters, sculptors and other visual artists. The  idea is to cast a wider net that appeals to a broader cross section of  Harlemites.

They’ve also launched an optional season pass to all shows for $95 that also  includes access to a series of short plays inspired slain Florida teen Trayvon  Martin that will run next spring. A VIP season pass costs $145 and allows more  in-depth access to workshops and reading series.

The National Black Theatre was purchased by the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, but even ownership of highly sought-after property doesn't stave off financial woes like repairs, heating, cooling, and plumbing.

The National Black Theatre was purchased by the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, but even ownership of highly sought-after property doesn’t stave off financial woes like repairs, heating, cooling, and plumbing.

The pass, of course, covers the current production of Keith Josef Adkins’  “The Last Saint on Sugar Hill,” an apropos look at a long-time Harlem resident  forced to choose between selling out or keeping family and cultural history  alive.

The “original and unpredictable” play, as the New York Times called it, runs  through Nov. 24. It stars Danny Johnson as a devilish Harlem landlord who is  willing to sell his neighborhood’s history for a quick buck.

Despite critical praise, there are some harsh financial realities for the  National Black Theatre.

The company’s most recent tax records show the theater brought in a little  more than $404,500 in revenue in 2011 against $429,700 in expenses. Salaries  were paid, but the cash reserve fund was nearly depleted.

Teer founded the theater in 1968 and purchased the property 16 years later,  meaning the theater isn’t susceptible to the area’s wildly skyrocketing rents,  what Lythcott calls her “saving grace.”

It’s also a big asset should Lythcott want to sell and move somewhere  else.

Chinaza Uchie and Jaime Lincoln Smith star in the National Black Theatre's original play, "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill," an apropos look one man's struggle to hold on to the culture of Harlem while facing the pressures of gentrification. .

Chinaza Uchie and Jaime Lincoln Smith star in the National Black Theatre’s original play, “The Last Saint on Sugar Hill,” an apropos look one man’s struggle to hold on to the culture of Harlem while facing the pressures of gentrification.

For now, though, Lythcott and McCroy said they focused on the new initiatives  and audience building.

“We see possibility,” Lythcott said. “We embrace anyone who is brave and  bold enough to come in our doors.”

The National Black Theatre has been New York City’s longest-operating black  theater company and the first revenue-generating black arts center in the city,  drawing in some 90,000-audience members each year. Stars such as Alicia Keys,  Nina Simone, Patti LaBelle, Donald Faison and Williams got their start  there.

Jackson is arguably the most famous NBT alum. The Academy Award-nominated  “Pulp Fiction” actor was bitten by the showbiz bug while building sets for the  theater, the first step on his road to fame.

“This area was the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance,” said Lythcott. “And  we want to keep that legacy alive.”

“The Last Saint on Sugar Hill,” through Nov. 24 at the National Black  Theatre, 2031 Fifth Ave. at 125th St. in Harlem, 212-722-3800.

By      / NEW YORK DAILY  NEWS

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/uptown/national-black-theatre-struggling-article-1.1523705#ixzz2lENomWB0

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