The history of Blues City Cultural Center spans more nearly 40 years. It is a collection of stories with diverse voices that generally coincide with the development and growth of black arts in Memphis and the Mid-South. As with most arts organization, we often had to be our own cheerleader and sometimes led the way in transforming the southern artistic landscape. While this is not an inclusive history, it provides glimpses into our past and dedication to our original mission—utilizing the visual, creative and performing arts as a platform for entertainment, education, engagement, and empowerment.
“The past is prologue.” William Shakespeare
If the Bard were here today, he would undoubtedly say that DOPKWE HOUSE, BEALE STREET REPERTORY COMPANY and the BEALE STREET WRITERS were prologues to Blues City Cultural Center, an arts organization that has touched thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives across the U.S. and other countries.
Under the direction of Tony Thompson, DOPKWE HOUSE emerged in the late 1960s as an arts conglomerate. It produced black theatre and featured the work of gifted visual artists such as David Green, Harriet Buckley, and Luther Hampton.
In 1975, BEALE STREET REPERTORY COMPANY was founded by Levi Frazier Jr, Deborah Hardin, Jon Wilson, Harold Gentry, Gregory Boyd and Ron Parker. They were determined to provide a home for black performing artists who had few venues for their remarkable talents.
From BEALE STREET REPERTORY COMPANY sprang the BEALE STREET WRITERS, a cadre of scribes who made a commitment to put pen to paper to satisfy their souls and uplift the black experience from a Southern perspective. Some of the early writers included Quincy McKay, Hosea Henderson Jr, Mary Ruth Robinson, Cynthia Jones Sadler, Tommie Lee Ray, Akiba Shabazz, T. T. Roberson, and Pat Barnes.
Hosea Henderson Jr. approached Art Gilliam, owner of WLOK, with a novel idea—a weekly radio show titled PLAY FOR A DAY. WLOK was the ideal venue since it was the first black-owned radio station in Memphis. The plays which were written by the BEALE STREET WRITERS aired on Sunday mornings for over two years. It was reminiscent of the days before television when families gathered around the radio to listen to live broadcasts. In this contemporary spin on classic radio programming, WLOK and WERD (Jacksonville, FL) listeners heard stories about black life by black writers.
In the footsteps of PLAY FOR A DAY, the BEALE STREET WRITERS produced SWEETER THE JUICE, a monthly theatre series on Memphis Cablevision. The televised productions span a variety of topics with an emphasis on Southern black culture.
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 the Big Red Theatre at the University of Memphis. Since its 1979 debut, Down on Beale has been performed many times on many stages. When it was performed 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).
Etheridge Knight, a major poet of the Black Arts Movement, joined BCCC as an artist-in-residence in the late 1970s. 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 the 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 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 works 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.
In 1980, BCCC launched ART IN NEW SPACES 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.”
ACT II: 1989—1999
With allocations from the Memphis Arts Council and Tennessee State Legislature, BCCC formed the first professional black theatre company in Memphis in 1989. With Ruby O’Gray as director, the acting ensemble included Verna Aldridge, Darrell K. Hagan, Phillip Bell, Michael Adrian Davis, and Percy Bradley. Danny White was technical director and Arthur Hall was guest choreographer. The first season productions included RISING FAWN AND THE FIRE MYSTERY, DOWN ON BEALE, and KNIGHT SONGS. RISING FAWN, written by local Native American author Marilou Awiakta, was staged using a multi-ethnic cast. In addition to staged productions, BCCC launched a touring company that traveled extensively throughout the Mid-South. Other productions included RITUAL MURDER, LOVE ON THE ROCKS, TICKLE THE RAIN, AMEN CORNER, BLACK NATIVITY, GOD’S TROMBONES, YOU’RE DIFFERENT, 3XQD, RAISIN IN THE SUN, and BIG TEN.
In LIES, LEGENDS AND TALES OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER at the Mud Island River Museum, BCCC staged live interpretations of local historic events such as the birth of the blues and the Battle of Vicksburg. Over 1,000 Memphis City Schools students attended the sold-out performances. The museum won a commendation from the American Association for State and Local History for this production.
BCCC hosted the Southern Black Cultural Alliance Annual Festival at the Old Daisy Theatre on Beale Street in 1990. SBCA, a regional arts cooperative established by Tom Dent in the 1970s, served as forum for southern black creativity. Artists from Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Texas and the Carolinas presented a series of plays collectively called You Don’t Say and facilitated workshops and readings.
In 1992, the Sorbonne, University of Mississippi, Harvard University, and Columbia University invited scholars and artists from around the world to the African-Americans and Europe International Conference in Paris, France. BCCC was invited to perform A TRIBUTE TO RICHARD WRIGHT, a compilation of dramatic readings, photographs, and dance that highlight the writer’s career from his boyhood in Memphis to his final years as an expatriate in Paris.
With a BRAVO award from First Tennessee Bank, the National Civil Rights Museum and BCCC brought CHEN AND DANCERS, a world-renowned company based in New York, to Memphis for a two-week residency. In addition to a public performance at the Cook Convention Center, the company of Asian-American dancers and folklorists worked with youth at the First Chinese Baptist Church and BCCC Trolley Stop Arts Camp.
In 1992, the Sorbonne, University of Mississippi, Harvard University, and Columbia University brought scholars and artists from around the world to the African American and Europe International Conference in Paris, France. BCCC was invited to perform A TRIBUTE TO RICHARD WRIGHT, a compilation of drama, photographs, and dance that highlight the writer’s career from his boyhood in Memphis to his final years as an expatriate in Paris.
With a BRAVO award from First Tennessee Bank, the National Civil Rights Museum and BCCC brought CHEN AND DANCERS, a world-renowned company based in New York, to Memphis for a two-week residency. In addition to a public performance at the Cook Convention Center, the company of Asian American dancers and folklorists worked with youth at the First Chinese Baptist Church and BCCC Trolley Stop Arts Camp.
In 1993, BCCC presented An Evening with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee at the Memphis Ellis Auditorium. The successful celebrity couple, who had been married over 47 years, shared their life story with over 1900 adoring fans. With careers spanning more than four decades, Davis eloquently described their personal and professional longevity – ”Ruby and I just seem to keep on going and going. We’ve been very blessed and fortunate and we always seem to have a full plate of projects to keep us busy.” While in Memphis, the couple was presented a proclamation from the mayor and keys to the city.
In response to growing concerns regarding violence among youth, BCCC collaborated with Drs. Jebose and Theresa Okwumabua to create PEACE IN THE HOUSE, an initiative that used the arts as an alternative to anger. Through drama, music, expressive writing, and painting, youth found creative avenues to channel inappropriate behavior while learning about the value of peace. BCCC worked with youth organizations throughout the Memphis who utilized PITH as an instrument for positive youth development. This arts intervention strategy was also presented to the Oklahoma City Schools system.
The BCCC stage was often a home to notable artists who acted in productions or conducted performance workshops. Willard Pugh, who portrayed Harpo in The Color Purple, was guest artist for PEACE IN THE HOUSE. Michael Sanders, an accomplished mime, was a performer in many productions and conducted performance workshops. Chuck Patterson, an actor in Hair and The Five Heartbeats, conducted acting workshops. Arthur Hall, founder and choreographer of the Arthur Hall Dancers in Philadelphia, directed TICKLE THE RAIN. Film and television actor Thomas Byrd was a guest dancer in BLACK NATIVITY and conducted workshops in Memphis- area schools. Lowell Smith of Dance Theatre of Harlem choreographed DOWN ON BEALE. Cato Walker, a member of the B. B. King band, directed DOWN ON BEALE. Daryl Williams, of the Broadway production Rent, performed in TICKLE THE RAIN. Ossie Davis and Ruby Davis was the guest artist in A CELEBRATION FOR A KING.
ACT III: 2000-2018
The new millennium brought new audiences, opportunities and directions. In addition to staging theatre productions, BCCC initiated numerous resident-driven arts-based projects in local communities. Now termed creative placemaking, this evolving field of practice intentionally leverages the power of the arts to meet challenges and needs while driving a broader agenda for change, growth and transformation. It builds upon existing assets to increase creative activity, stimulate local economies, and improve the quality of life. BCCC believes its approach to creative placemaking can lead to more livable communities whereby residents of all ages benefit through inclusionary, equitable art processes. Our motto—Arts for a Better Way of Life—is not only intrinsic in our work but also reflects a commitment to our constituencies and stakeholders.
BCCC partnered with Memphis Housing Authority to unleash the virtually untapped talent and wisdom of public housing residents. Generally marginalized within the urban core and typically viewed as unempowered, these residents had limited access to the resources and networks. The collaboration resulted in SEEK-TO-SERVE, a servant-leadership project that builds the capacity of 50-plus mixed-income housing residents. These grassroots leaders acquire practical skill-based training that can lead to improvements within their lives and communities. In 2015, BCCC published Don’t Count Me Out: Contending Voices, a compelling narrative of struggle and triumph written Seek-To-Serve participants. To further validate the importance of these stories and present them in a public forum, BCCC dramatized the book into a theatre performance at Southwest Tennessee Community College and presented during the 2016 Neighborhood USA National Conference.
In the BCCC arts studio, women sew love, make art and build community. Implemented in 2015, SEW MUCH LOVE is an arts-based social enterprise that provides transitional income for women who reside in homeless shelters in Uptown. In addition to exposure to varied forms of the creative arts, it provides opportunities for homeless women to collaborate with practicing artists and each other to transform raw materials into marketable handcrafted artworks. The women have created over 500 artworks. In 2016, BCCC published Women Who Have Seen the Rough Side of the Mountain, a collection of compelling narratives and poetry written by SEW MUCH LOVE participants. The project was featured in the Commercial Appeal and the National Endowment for the Arts magazine. In partnership with the Downtown Memphis Commission, SEW MUCH LOVE operated a Pop-Up Shop on North Main Street in 2017. The project can be considered a model for integrating art, engagement and enterprise among homeless and other marginalized populations.
BCCC has a sustained presence in Orange Mound, a neighborhood established in 1890 as one of the first subdivisions in the United States specifically planned for African Americans. In 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama in conjunction with the U.S. Office of Historic Preservation designated Orange Mound as a Preserve America Community. Our creative placemaking work has included developing an authentic neighborhood tour, staging original theatrical productions, and forming a youth theatre guild and heritage center at Melrose High School. Now in its third year, the neighborhood tour—THIS IS ORANGE mound—recognizes significant cultural and historical assets identified by elders and youth. The tour was named by WMC-TV as “one of the best things that happened in Memphis.” IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT, a series of plays addressing chronic illnesses that disproportionately impact 50+ African Americans, was featured in Where We Live, an AARP magazine recognizing inspiring ideas that improve communities and respond to pressing issues.
BCCC provided on-site creative arts programming at Binghampton Christian Academy and Sherwood Elementary School. Since the majority of students at Binghampton are Sudanese refugees, programming was designed to bridge African American and African cultures through the creative arts. At Sherwood, BCCC implemented The Right Thing Academy, an arts-based behavior modification project designed to strengthen problem-solving and decision-making skills among school-age children
ACT IV: 40 YEARS
In April 2019, Blues City Cultural Center will celebrate its 40th Anniversary. As we stage the next act, we hope the arts will be widely viewed as a right of every individual, a necessity for every community, and a uniting force locally and regionally.