Harlem's National Black Theatre in Fight for Survival
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The National Black Theatre is in bad shape.
The floors creak, the carpet needs replacing, the sound system needs a total revamp.
Most alarmingly, the famed institution's finances are in drastic dire straits. The building at 2031 Fifth Avenue went into foreclosure earlier this year after racking up $1.8 million in unpaid taxes.
But, despite the immense difficulties facing the group, the theater's director, Sade Lythcott, is determined that her show will go on.
"We are committed to staying," said Lythcott, whose mother Barbara Ann Teer started the nationally-renowned theater 43 years ago.
"We have been here so long that we are woven into the fabric of Harlem and New York. You could say we have a lot of roots."
Now, more than ever, the strength of those roots is being tested.
The difficult situation facing the theater is the result of a soured partnership it entered into with the owners of beauty supply company Nubian Heritage, which makes products using African ingredients.
Under the agreement, the owners of the beauty company — Richelieu Dennis and Nyema Tubman — would manage the building, renting out space to tenants and opening a spa and beauty products store.
The rent paid to the theater would be used to finance its operations. The deal, which Teer made before she died in 2008, was endorsed by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, which provided loans that have since been defaulted upon.
Lythcott said Teer envisioned the theater being a self-supporting entity, free from needing to rely on government grants and fundraising efforts.
But Lythcott claims Dennis and Tubman did not pay the rent they owed. Taxes went unpaid and money taken from a mortgage was mismanaged and used improperly, Lythcott claims.
Now the theater is tied up in a court battle with Nubian Heritage.
Because Tubman and Dennis still legally control the property, rent from tenants such as Bath and Body Works and Edible Arrangements is not going to the theater, Lythcott says.
"The doomsday scenario is that if the building is sold from underneath us, National Black Theatre does not have a home," said Lythcott. "From the moment of my mother's death, we have been fighting to save her legacy and vision."
Dennis and Tubman did not respond to requests for comment, but the pair has said in the past that the building is in worse shape than they had expected.
Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel said he was trying to intervene on the theater's behalf.
"It's a very complicated legal situation that's involved," Rangel said when asked about the arrangement. "I really want to see that place saved with all that her mom has put into that development."
On the theater's upper floor sits the unfinished spa Dennis and Tubman began building. The rooms are littered with top-notch equipment and expensive tile. It sits gathering dust.
The former retail space is run down. A piece of wood covers shattered glass, and a leak from the spa above has left a hole in the ceiling.
But Lythcott is determined not to dismiss the building as a lost cause.
"Our plan is to keep engaging the community for support," she said.
"The more our story is told, the more I believe the community will support us."