Why The Attucks Theater Is More Than Just Good Music From The Old Days.. And Worth A Visit Today
By Raoul Dennis // @suitemagazine
“Our Country Tis Of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty…Of Thee We Sing…”
“The First Man To Die For The Flag We Now Hold High Was A Black Man…”
The long and short of it is this: why reboot an early 20th century racially-anchored venue with deep new millennium, 21st century money?
What future is there in investing in the past? (the city of Norfolk made a $6 million dollar renovation through the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, Inc.)
In order to understand the answer to that question, one needs to be clear that such a decision was made on behalf of the Attucks Theater – the oldest black built, black managed and black held theater and entertainment space in the U.S. history. In this regard, it’s older than The Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC .
As such, The Attucks, located on Norfolk’s Church Street, was the entertainment center for what was once downtown for the African American community in the first half of the 20th century. Musicians and entertainers including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Moms Mabley and Smokey Robinson were just as likely to be on stage headlining as they were to be in the audience (if they happened to be in town for another engagement). The beautiful 600+ seat theater played host to black film starring actors such as Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Sidney Poitier. It was more than just entertainment.
Church Street, the Attucks, the restaurants and the businesses were all part of a cultural center, an African American village square.
In those days, the shoe shine boy, the stage hand, the beautician and the barber showed up at the same church and restaurants as the bankers, the accountants and the teachers. The Attucks was where everyone came to put on their best clothes, laugh, sing and dance with many of the greatest talents in the world.
But just as with hundreds of black-owned venues and businesses across the nation with the onset of integration, the Attucks closed its doors in 1953. With a renewed mission, it reopened in 2004.
When the Attucks began its story 100 years ago, it was borne, in part, out of necessity for African American artists and audiences to have entertainment hubs during a time when segregation demanded it. But like Soul Food’s Ahmad, who, even at age 11, realized that the true value of the weekly dinners at Big Momma’s house weren’t merely about the meal, Father Joseph N. Green, Jr. and the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center understood that The Attucks’ value was deeper than the price of the tickets.
The Attucks is the glue that binds the African American story. It’s the bridge that connects one generation to the next and then to the next—through song, and laughter and dance and a night when people put on their best. Regardless of the format: stage, film, digital or online, we gather to enjoy the soul food that nourishes the spirit of who we are as family and a community with a shared, though unique, African American experience.
That’s why Ahmad was right and that’s why the $6 million raised to reopen the Attucks was the right thing to do.
Because my mother, on her 77th birthday, was so happy with the show she nearly joined the performers reincarnating the Great Ones onstage. Because when Moms Mabley said “I gotta go,” just before she broke into her signature, sign off rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John,” I was truly tempted to yell out “don’t go yet, please!” not just because I wanted more (she had me ROTFL), but because I missed her and what she did for us and wanted her back. Because as we sat there, three generations strong, I knew my niece and her wife could feel this magic that they’d perhaps only heard of in passing before – and that the magic would be safe with them going forward.
It’s an exceptional theater: the balconies, the tapestries and the lighting all renovated to state of the art standards without losing the elegance and craftsmanship of the early 20th century. It’s worth every mile down the road for a weekend that will stir you to remember and an experience you should never forget.