Out of America: Blacks bank on theatre of hope
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Wednesday 09 February 1994
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.
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