Company launched careers of Samuel L. Jackson and Patti LaBelle. But cash is running short.
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 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.
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 Beth Stebner / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS