When Carl Clay, a visionary writer, producer and filmmaker, founded the Black Spectrum Theatre Company in 1970 in Jamaica, it became a platform for African American artists to share their stories in theater, film, music, and videos examining issues of social significance to the African Diaspora.
It’s one of the only black professional theaters in New York City serving nearly 20,000 audience members and reaching thousands more through its various programs. It is the recipient of 10 AUDELCO Awards and three National Black Theatre Festival Awards for excellence in African American theatre.
Now, the theater is preparing to host its 50th Anniversary Gala on April 25 to continue to nurture the next generation of artists for the 21st Century.
“There are so many theaters going out of business, so many organizations having to end their mission. To be around for 50 years, and to be able to look back and see some continuity, from beginning to the present is an awesome feeling,” Clay said. “This is not a journey I’ve taken by myself in any means. We have a wall in the theatre called ‘The Wall of the Ancestors,’ and we honor those 30 people who gave their life, blood, sweat and tears to create the theatre.”
The Black Spectrum Theatre hosts 22 events during the season between October and August every year, according to Clay. At least seven or eight of those are theater production among special events ranging from comedy shows, jazz concerts, speakers and book signing parties.
From its early beginnings in a church to basements and homes of members and their parents, the Black Spectrum Theatre became a traveling theatrical troupe performing along the eastern seaboard in colleges, churches, festivals, and event venues.
In 1977, they moved into a converted 100-seat theater venue that was previously an abandoned drug store at 205th Street on Linden Boulevard. Eventually, they renovated, converted, and assisted in the architectural design of an abandoned Navel Hospital Officers’ Club that hadn’t been used since World War II.
Today, it is the Roy Wilkins Family Center and the Black Spectrum Theatre is located inside, where it continues to be a cultural anchor and educational resource for the community.
In 1986, the Black Spectrum moved into its own 400-seat state-of-the-art theatre, located in the recreation complex in Roy Wilkins Park, just three miles south of downtown Jamaica. The theatre is equipped to double as a film and video studio. It also houses the administration offices, rehearsal space, and a small cabaret theatre within the complex as well.
“I think we’ve had a very good reputation in the community for presenting and giving opportunities to young people and presenting productions that have a cultural, as well as historical and social meaning,” said Clay.
Over the years, the theatre has produced and presented over 450 plays and 27 films that have not only impacted southeast Queens, but also the city and the nation, according to Clay.
Its first movie, “Babies Making Babies,” was shown across the country educating young people on the issues of teen pregnancy, followed by another film, “The Follower,” speaking on the male role in teen pregnancy. The theatre also showed one of the first theatrical productions on the AIDS crisis in New York City in the 1970s.
As a nonprofit organization with an annual budget of $1.7 million, the Black Spectrum receives funding from individuals, government foundations, corporations, and volunteer support from its board, community members and youth company parents.
In celebration of its milestone anniversary, the theatre observed Black History Month in February with a series of special programs highlighting African American achievements in film, theater, literature and music. Its Women’s History Month program in March is featuring the lives of Mae Jemison, Thurgood Marshall, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Additionally, the theatre is reintroducing its first-ever production, Black Love, written and directed by Clay. Black Love is a kaleidoscope of stories exploring different types of love from self-love to the relationships between lovers, siblings, friends and family.
“People think of the African American community as young guys in hoods, thugs and criminals, which are misplaced images for our community,” Clay said. “It’s important for them to see how much love there is in our community. Growing up, my parents never taught me to hate anybody. Black Love is an example of the love in our community, and it’s a great joy to bring a show like that after 50 years and the people who were a part of it.”
As the major highlight of this milestone season, the historic theatre will also host its 50th Anniversary Gala celebrating its rich legacy and honoring legendary performers Louis Gossett Jr., Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, and Clay on Saturday, April 25, at 6 p.m. at the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel, located at 104-04 Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst. Tickets for the gala are $150. A ticket package including admission to the Gala, an afterparty, and an overnight stay at the hotel is $400.
Hosted by NY1 News reporter Dean Meminger and WBLS/Steve Harvey Morning Show Personality Anne Tripp, the star-studded evening will include an elegant seated dinner, feature special presentations and celebrity performances, appearances, and will culminate with a fun-filled afterparty led by a DJ.