With new play and new funding, New Freedom Theater turns a corner

    Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street will premiere The Ballad of Trayvon Martin

    Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street will premiere The Ballad of Trayvon Martin

    One of the oldest African-American theaters in the country, the New Freedom Theater on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, will premiere a play this week about Trayvon Martin.

    The production marks a revival of the long-struggling theater.

    “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin” takes place in the seven minutes between the time he was shot by  neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman and when his soul leaves his body. The action moves forward and back in time, describing Martin’s prior life and Zimmerman’s subsequent trial.

    In the play, Martin’s spirit is helped by Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

    “In the African-Caribbean tradition, we use sankofa,” said director and co-writer Rajendra Maharaj. “That is, a person who is transitioning, they have a spirit guide to help them cross over. Emmett Till becomes Trayvon’s spirit guide.”

    The lead actors come from New Freedom’s performance school, and most of the cast is based in the city.

    “It’s an opportunity for us as a community to tell a story very rooted in the experience of people today,” said Maharaj. “I have many people in my school — young black men — who say, ‘This is my reality every day. I come to Freedom and I learn about Alvin Ailey, and opera, and James Baldwin, and all these great artists. Then I go outside and put on a hoodie and I become a target.'”

    Maharaj, a busy New York-based director and choreographer (he helmed last year’s “Little Rock” at Trenton’s Passage Theater, which won a Barrymore Award) was brought in as a temporary guest artistic director. He will be with New Freedom throughout the summer, producing three full productions and overseeing ancillary programs.

    “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin” will be performed 12 times during its two-week run.

    Relieved of debt and resilient

    That would not be unusual for most theaters, but this kind of extended programming has not been seen here for many years due to crippling problems within the organization.

    “Those of us who have been around for a long time have been through many low points,” said board chair Derek Hargreaves. “It’s been very tough. At times hard to maintain optimism.”

    The company was nearly crushed by debt, leaving its building — the historic Edwin Forrest House — in disrepair. Programming became unfocused. Patrons and donors fell away.

    “A big chunk of our debt was owed to one of the banks here in the city, PNC,” said Hargreaves. “In the end, they very generously forgave that debt.”

    Hargreaves said the theater also sold off some of its real estate — mostly surrounding parking lots — to bring an influx of cash that enabled the company to focus on programming instead of debt payments. The building’s interior is undergoing overdue renovations.

    Even through the lean years, executive producing director Sandra Norris Haughton kept the theater and school aligned with its mission of serving the African-American community. Now, she said, the company has turned a corner.

    “What we’re going through now is a manifestation of our resiliency,” said Haughton. “We can chart our course no matter how choppy the waters. That’s the most important thing — we never wavered from our mission.”

    The Community Design Collaborative — a group of designers and architects who do pro bono work for selected projects — assessed the building to determine how it can be repurposed for more uses, rentals, and tenants. That could lead to new revenue and greater solvency.

    “Amazingly, funders are calling us,” said Haughton. “It’s exciting to have someone say, ‘We like what you’re doing, and we see we haven’t funded you. We’re going to give you a grant.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you!'”

    Next year, its 50th anniversary, the New Freedom Theater will try out another temporary guest artistic director — its third in three years — after which it will select someone to permanently fill the position.

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