ACT I: 1979-1988
Levi and Deborah Frazier had been married just under one year when they envisioned a theatre company to promote original work about the South, particularly the southern black experience. Since Levi had co-founded Beale Street Repertory Company and Deborah was a seasoned actress, they were both eager to launch a theatre that would promote local artistic talent and reach underserved audiences. In the words of Langston Hughes: “Someday someone will write about me…I reckon it will me myself, yes, it will be me.” True to Langston and the need for original black theatre productions, Blues City Cultural Center was born in 1979 in Memphis, the official “Home of the Blues.” An abundance of talent and source material was found within the Beale Street Writers Workshop.
Befitting the “Home of the Blues,” the first BCCC production was Down on Beale, a musical written by Levi while a student at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). It opened in 1979 in the Big Red Theatre at the University of Memphis. Since its debut, Down on Beale has been performed many times on many stages. When it was performed in 1979 at the Richard Allen Center for Culture & Arts in New York, acclaimed actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith had a starring role. Over the years, performers have included Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays, Julian Bolton, Danny Drew, Marilyn Boyd Drew, Erliz Taylor, Rudy Gardner, Sheila Peace, Moses Peace and LaRita Shelby.
To recognize achievement in the preservation of black arts in Memphis and the Mid-South, BCCC and the Beale Street Writers Workshop initiated the BESS Awards, named in honor of blues singer Bessie Smith. The first honorees included Harry Bryce (Harry Bryce Dance Company), Tyrone Moore (Beale Street Repertory Company), Florence Roach (Mid-America Performing Arts), Julian Bolton (New Theatre South Ensemble), Erma Clanton (Evening of Soul), Betty Phillips (Beale Street Theatre Guild), Jerry McGlown (LeMoyne Owen Theatre Department) and Andrea Thompson (Children’s Theatre).
When Etheridge Knight, a major poet of the Black Arts Movement, joined BCCC as an artist-in-residence in the late 1970s, he steered the company in a new direction. Having honed his poetic skills while imprisoned, he once stated, “I died in prison from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” The “life” Etheridge breathed into BCCC was in the form of Free Peoples Poetry Workshop, a series of public poetry forums in nontraditional spaces such as bars and prisons. This collaboration with Knight extended BCCC’s mission to reach underserved, marginalized populations who were a seemingly invisible audience in the Memphis arts community. In 1980, Deborah wrote Knight Songs, a tributary compilation on the life and work of Etheridge Knight. Eleven years after the debut of KNIGHT SONGS, Etheridge died in Indianapolis in 1991. As a final tribute to his legacy and contributions to contemporary literature, BCCC published “Questions, Comments, Confrontations: A Study Guide on Poet Etheridge Knight” in 1993.
ART IN NEW SPACES provided opportunities for visual artists to exhibit their work in nontraditional places. The first exhibit opened in 1980 at Tri-State Bank with the works of Tennessee-native DeWitt Jordan whose oil paintings captured the essence of black life in the south. In his reflection of Jordan, Memphis artist George Hunt commented: "He frequented the juke joints and reproduced the images he saw. Like most geniuses, his work was not recognized until his death. And he knew that would happen." The works of photographer Bobby Sengstacke was also exhibited at Tri-State Bank.