Some patrons and alumni of the Freedom Theatre in North Philadelphia are asking its board of directors to include them in its plans for the future.
The landmark African-American theater on North Broad Street has recently come into conflict with some of its supporters. At a town-hall style meeting in September about diversity in Philadelphia theater, an altercation ensued, resulting in vandalism, lockouts, and police intervention. After the dust settled, each side blamed the other for its behavior that day.
This week, at the opening of Freedom’s production of “The Black Nativity,” about a dozen people from the Alumni Coalition of New Freedom Theatre gathered to repeat a request for a meeting with the board to discuss their vision for the future. A previous request in a Nov. 12 letter had gone unanswered.
“We understand that arts organizations — in particular in neighborhoods like these, which are gentrifying — face tremendous pressure. That’s why we’re here,” said attorney Sekou Campbell, a nephew of the theater’s co-founder John Allen. “We’re here to support Freedom Theatre as an institution in this neighborhood.”
The New Freedom Theatre was in dire straits for years, with lackluster programming and crushing debt. It recently became solvent by selling some real estate holdings and having most of its debt forgiven.
Now it’s charting a new course by hiring artistic staff and revamping its education program. But longtime supporters of the theater — the people who have been buying tickets and sending their kids to classes at Freedom for years — say they have been shut out of that future.
“Historically, Freedom Theatre has served inner–city urban youth. Hopefully that direction will not change,” said Robert E.H. Miller, another attorney and member of the Alumni Coalition. “That’s why we’re here — to make sure the direction for Freedom Theatre that has been maintained for decades will not change.”
In a statement, the Alumni Coalition stated it might take legal action if their questions are not answered by the board, but did not say what that legal action would be. It has also launched an online petition calling for the removal of Freedom Theatre’s executive director, Sandra Haughton, claiming she has made decisions adverse to the theater’s legacy.
Haughton, however, will not take a meeting with the coalition because she does not recognize it as a legitimate group. Its members have consistently harassed her staff and patrons, she said.
“What they’ve done on social media, how they have insulted — insult is too mild a word. They have defiled, defamed, libeled and slandered the board, and me in particular,” said Haughton. “They’ve threatened kids who want to come back, calling them traitors. This is a rogue organization in my point of view.”
Haughton does not have a community advisory committee. She said decisions regarding Freedom Theatre’s training program have been informed by experts in education and arts administration.
“We have all kinds of collaborative opportunities that will continue to fulfill the mission of using the arts as a platform for self-empowerment and self-esteem and to create productive citizens,” said Haughton.
The Freedom Theater, now celebrating its 50th season, is one of the very few legacy African-American theaters remaining in the U.S.
Haughton said her main goals this season are to settle its remaining debt and find a more sustainable financial model.
To that end, she wants to grow the board from four members (as of September) to nine members, to be populated by bankers and lawyers with business expertise. In two weeks, the board is expected to vote in its sixth member.