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.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments