Out of America: Blacks bank on theatre of hope

WASHINGTON - If singer Jenny Holliday, the star of your show, turns up an hour and a quarter late on opening night, even steely- nerved impresarios will reach for the Valium. And even assuming it had started on time, this particular production of Ain't Got Long To Stay Here, described as a musical tribute to Martin Luther King, was not headed for immortality.

But last Friday evening at 12th and U streets, any old rubbish would have done. The Lincoln Theatre was back in business. Black Washington for once had something to cheer.

It is hard to believe now, of a city whose preoccupations are government, gossip and guns, but once Washington was a black cultural Mecca with U Street at its heart. Back in the Thirties and Forties, before racial desegregation, the area was known as 'Black Broadway'.

South of New York, its supporters claimed, there was nothing like it in all America: a district of 'negroes only' clubs and restaurants, and half a dozen theatres featuring the finest entertainers. The Lincoln was the most famous, U Street's equivalent of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. From Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey to Dorothy Dandridge, everyone had played it.

Paradoxically, desegregation was the Lincoln's ruin. When Washington's cinemas and theatres in the mid-Fifties opened their doors to everyone, its raison d'etre vanished. King's murder and the 1968 riots that followed finished the job, turning 'Black Broadway', so close to the city centre, into a battlefield.

The entire neighbourhood's decay seemed irretrievable. The theatre itself passed from owner to owner, each one seedier than the last. But in 1991, the DC government stepped in. You might argue a bankrupt city had better things to spend dollars 9m ( pounds 6m) on than renovating a theatre. But the rewards, in terms of morale even more than money, might be incalculable.

U Street is barely a dozen blocks from the Independent's office. But even with the spruced-up Lincoln, it might be on another planet. Inside, the theatre is gorgeous, a gilded extravaganza of velvet and marble, a hotchpotch of styles from neo-classical to Victorian and art deco, exactly as it was half a century ago. From the outside, too, the theatre is a palace in comparison with its surroundings - a wretched urban landscape of derelict buildings, empty lots, litter, and idle men on the street corners.

If the Lincoln takes off, all might be transformed. Clubs, bars and eateries could return. Some say the theatre will draw 10,000 people a week; each dollar they spend on a ticket, it is reckoned, will generate dollars 3 to dollars 5 for the neighbourhood economy. This may not amount to a chic and glitzy 'new Georgetown', but over re-opening weekend, Ben's Chili Bowl next door saw its sales triple. Not bad for starters. The true test will come later.

Rightly and inevitably, the Lincoln's rebirth is a black affair. The first three audiences were 90 per cent black. The shows booked for the first two months are the works of black authors and composers. Thereafter though, the Lincoln's organisers want to broaden out. Neighbourhoods, too, have changed since the Forties. There are now gay and Hispanic communities close by, while white Washington starts at 16th Street, only four blocks away.

Even more intriguing, they are going up-market. Tickets will cost up to dollars 28, cheaper than the real Broadway, maybe, but no snip for that. The gamble is that higher prices will somehow, like a rocket launcher, blast U Street into a new, more prosperous, orbit.

The planned repertory too points in the same direction: concerts and plays, recitals and jazz - but no rock or rap bands. As one of the Lincoln's managers told me: 'We're not going to be putting on the kind of shows which require metal detectors at the door.' The real 'Black Broadway' flourished in a less violent America. Can its would-be successor lure modern Washington's peaceable black middle class, which doesn't carry guns or push drugs and which can patronise any theatre it chooses?

If the answer is 'yes', then a city which of late has seemed only to stagger from one crisis to another will have glimpsed a happier future. The Lincoln, a DC Council member rhapsodises, 'will bring life, love and happiness to the area'. If not, however, it will be evidence anew that America's inner cities are already beyond repair.

Last Friday, nostalgia bred hope. In the audience was the band-leader Cab Calloway, now in his eighties, who played the Lincoln in the Thirties: 'Washington was beautiful; beautiful people, beautiful audiences. That's all you needed.' Maybe that's all you need now.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?