New Freedom Theatre works to weather storm of development

Posted: March 02, 2014

THERE WAS ONCE a time when a young Denzel Washington, not yet world famous, was spotted hanging out at North Philadelphia's New Freedom Theatre.

It was in the 1980s, and Washington, in his 20s then, had starred off-Broadway in the Negro Ensemble Company's "A Soldier's Play."

The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for playwright Charles Fuller, a Philadelphian.

Thirty years later, Jaleel C. McCoy, 17, a dancer who attends the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, is also spending time at Freedom Theatre.

McCoy calls it " home."

"I've been coming here for four years," the teen said after a performance this week. "We [dancers] have a connection with the actors and the singers. We are a whole family."

McCoy was one of 18 teenagers who performed Monday for Freedom board members, staff and community supporters.

Along with the dance, the teens joined D'Ava Neuman, 22, an alum of Freedom's after-school program, to perform a sketch about gun violence, remix Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" and sing "Home" from the Broadway show "The Wiz."

The entertainment was not art for art's sake, though.

Freedom's board of directors hosted the reception to showcase the young people's talents, and the goal was to inspire community members to volunteer, join the board of directors and develop ideas for the theater's future.

Over the last several years, as development increased rapidly on North Broad Street, some Freedom supporters have worried whether the theater will survive the wave of new investment in North Philadelphia.

"Freedom Theatre will always be here," said an adamant Joyce Allen, the widow of theater founder John Allen.

But for several years now, the theater has not been able to produce its annual holiday program, "Black Nativity."

The 160-year-old historic Edwin Forrest Mansion that houses the theater needs a new heating and air-conditioning system and other repairs.

Despite the challenges, Freedom's executive director, Sandra Haughton, said there has been recent progress.

In 2006, the theater was $6 million in debt. Today, the debt has been cut to $1.5 million, she said.

Freedom was also recently selected for the Community Design Collaborative's program for nonprofits.

Robin Kohles, a project associate at the collaborative, said it will provide a team - including two architects, a mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineer, a historic preservationist and a cost estimator - to produce a feasibility study on how Freedom can become more efficient.

For one, the team will look into whether the theater can free up enough space to create condos on upper floors to produce revenue, Kohles said.

Once the collaborative's study is complete, Freedom may use the report to seek major funding to renovate the building.

"We are just excited about weathering this storm. So many arts organizations across the country are closing," Haughton said. "We're working to stay relevant in the 21st century."


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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