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.