Jamaica theatre turns negative into positive

By Courtney Dentch

The Afrikan Poetry Theatre is still recovering from a fire two years ago that ravaged the second floor of its Jamaica building, but the group’s leaders are working to turn that curse into a blessing.

The theater at 176-03 Jamaica Ave. is hoping to complete renovations this spring on five rooms on the second floor that have been shut since the February 2002 blaze, but that work is just the start of an ambitious $1.2 million project to overhaul the facility, said John Watusi Branch, co-founder and executive director of the theater.

The fire also disrupted sale negotiations between the theater and the building’s owner, but the purchase price dropped after the blaze and the theater was able to raise the money to buy the building in June 2003, Branch said.

“The fire happened and we’re not sure if it was a blessing or a curse,” he said. “It did reduce the price of the building, but we’re still trying to fix the damage. That whole side of the building is closed down now.”

The repairs to the upstairs rooms are being financed through the theater’s own fund-raising efforts and a grant from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Branch said. A local merchant, Aaron’s Carpet and Furniture, has also offered to do about $30,000 in work to fix the walls and floors, Branch said.

“He has seen what’s been going on here with the youth and he’s really impressed with what we’re doing,” he said.

Funds secured by Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) have been earmarked for renovations on the first floor, including the ceiling, the walls and a 2-by-2 support beam standing in the middle of the room, Branch said.

“We want to move a column,” he said. “It’s always a problem trying to seat people around it for our performances.”

But the money and the work planned are just the first steps toward overhauling the entire building, Branch said. A couple who are involved with the theater and run a Manhattan-based engineering and architecture firm drew up a $1.2 million plan, which included a new facade for the building, a gift shop, a new reception area, an additional staircase and a litany of other projects, Branch said.

“It’s coming in stages,” he said. “The challenge is raising the money.”

The theater was founded in 1976 by Branch and another poet as a performance ensemble, but after the group moved to its Jamaica Avenue home in 1979, it expanded to offer literary workshops, cultural programs and more, he said.

“Poetry is still a very important part, but we’re more than just poetry,” Branch said.

The theater hosts film screenings, jazz and musical performances and a host of youth programs in addition to its poetry and writing programs, he said. Among the most successful youth activities is the architecture class, where students learn about different building types and styles, and the Summer Youth Employment Program, a city-run program to place teens in the work force.

“It’s a challenging program, but it’s rewarding because it has the outreach we’re looking for,” Branch said. “We’ve always struggled to get that audience. This program deals with the average teen. They come for a job and they’re exposed to us and what we do.”

Branch also organizes trips to Africa through the theater, such as the Afriquest program, which brought high school teens to Ghana for about a month to immerse them in the culture there, he said. The program ran throughout most of the 1990s but stopped due to a lack of funding, he said.

“They learned a lot,” he said of the students. “We set up formal classes on things like basket weaving, Ghana’s history and traditions, and they shared what they knew with the youth they met there.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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