By Madina Toure
Residents walking along the northwest corner of 176th Street and Jamaica Avenue will now be greeted by a new street sign — John Watusi Branch Way — in honor of the late John Watusi, who co-founded the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in the 1970s.
The street renaming ceremony, held in front of the theater at 176-03 Jamaica Ave., consisted of traditional performances, libations, a drink poured out as an offering to a god or spirit, and remarks from elected officials, community leaders and activists.
Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) said he was happy to “introduce this legislation that would honor our elder in a way that is so fitting and that he is so deserving of.”
Branch, known as “Baba,” meaning “father,” went into a coma after suffering a heart attack Dec. 23. Five days later, he was taken off life support. He died at the age of 70.
In 1976, Branch and the late Yusef Waliyaya co-founded the Afrikan Poetry Theatre Ensemble, the progenitor to the theater, as a collection of poets, singers and musicians focused on jazz, funk, African rhythms and poetry.
The Afrikan Poetry Theatre was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1977 and found a location on Merrick Boulevard a year later. In 1979, the theater moved to its current location.
Fighting back tears, Sophia Branch, John’s wife, thanked everyone involved in the effort and praised her husband.
“It takes a long time to really talk about John, write about John, say things about John,” she said. “It takes a lot of thinking, a lot of thoughts, because he was a good person. He was a great person. John was a proud man and that takes thoughts and thinking.”
His son, Sekou Branch, the theater’s executive director, struggled to speak for a couple of seconds as he held back tears, with attendees encouraging him to take his time.
“It’s been a long road, a road that we didn’t expect to travel ourselves…but we traveled it and we’re here and we ain’t going nowhere,” he said. “It’s that simple. And that’s the way he (John) was: to the point, very simple. It is what it is and that’s what it is.”
According to one of his daughters, Kim Veira, who said John would call her “Tamu,” she and her sisters were “just elated to be here.”
“Everywhere I go—I live in Atlanta, my sister lives in Atlanta, my sister here’s in Charlotte, my sister’s in Raleigh—and everywhere we go and we mention the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, someone knows our father, knows of the work that he’s done, and it makes me so proud as his daughter,” Veira said.
John’s nephew, elder sister and grandchildren also shared their sentiments about the street renaming.
Under Branch’s leadership, the theater expanded, leading cultural and educational tours to West Africa as well as developing a summer youth employment program. He was a prominent figure in the Pan-African movement and a published poet and author.
“It was a powerful statement when he first put the Afrikan Poetry Theatre here on Jamaica Avenue,” state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-Hollis) said. “It shook up a lot of people back then and it scared folks back then. People were confused as to what this building stood for and what people here were about.”
He also said he and Miller are working on getting the building renovated, noting that he had $5 million in the budget.
“My biggest frustration as an elected official was that we could not get this building renovated, even though I put millions of dollars in the budget. As long as I’ve been in, they changed the rules,” he said.
Rev. Herbert Daughtry, national presiding minister of the House of the Lord Churches, said the street renaming guarantees that Branch’s legacy will always be known.
“As long as they come up and down Jamaica Avenue, John Watusi Branch will never die!” Daughtry exclaimed. “As long as we gather here at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, John Watusi Branch will never die.”
Community Board 12 Chairwoman Adrienne Adams, who is challenging state Sen. James Sanders (D-South Ozone Park) for his seat, sang the Negro National Anthem.
Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtour