The history of Blues City Cultural Center spans more than 35 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 sometimes had to be our own cheerleader and often 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. DOPKWE HOUSE, under the direction of Tony Thompson, was located in south Memphis on Bellevue near McLemore. The organization which came into being in the late sixties was an arts conglomerate that not only produced black drama, but featured the work of gifted painters and sculptors such as David Green, Harriet Buckley, and Luther Hampton.
BEALE STREET REPERTORY COMPANY, formed in 1975, was founded by Levi Frazier Jr., Deborah Hardin, Jon Wilson, Harold Gentry, Gregory Boyd and Ron Parker. In their early twenties at the time, this dynamic group of artists was determined to provide a home for the talented black performing artists who had few venues for their remarkable talent in a city where blacks were nearly fifty percent of the population.
From BEALE STREET REPERTORY COMPANY sprang the BEALE STREET WRITERS, a cadre of scribes who had made both a personal and public commitment to put pen to paper not only for their soul’s satisfaction but for the uplifting of the black experience, as it had never been told, especially by Southern voices. Some of its 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 broadcasts of Amos & Andy, Hopalong Cassidy, and the George Burns Show. In this contemporary spin on classic radio programming, WLOK and WERD (Jacksonville, FL) listeners heard stories about black life by black writers.
Following 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 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.
ACT II: 1989—1999
With allocations from the Memphis Arts Council and Tennessee State Legislature, BCCC formed the first and only professional black theatre company in Memphis in 1989. Housed at TheatreWorks on south Main Street, BCCC now had a home stage and paid professional actors. 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. The discussion session after the show which featured Native Americans in this area was one of the liveliest of BCCC’s post-show audience forums. In addition to staged productions during its regular seasons, BCCC launched a touring company that traveled extensively throughout the Mid-South. Productions during other BCCC seasons 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, Mud Island River Museum exhibits were brought to life by BCCC re-enactments of local historic events such as the development 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. Groups from Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Texas and the Carolinas presented a series of plays collectively called YOU DON’T SAY and conducted workshops, readings and other performances.
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 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, Levi and Deborah and their good friends, Drs. Jebose and Theresa Okwumabua, created PEACE IN THE HOUSE, an initiative that used the arts as an alternative to anger. Through drama, music, 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 dynamic 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 theArthur 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: 2000-2009
Deborah Frazier, along with Memphis Housing Authority, recognized that public housing residents possessed virtually untapped talent and wisdom. Generally marginalized within the urban core and typically viewed as unempowered, these residents had limited access to the resources and networks that would substantially improve their lives and communities. The Frazier-MHA collaboration resulted in SEEK TO SERVE, a six-month servant-leadership training program for residents of mixed-income housing developments.
Based on a suggestion from a Seek to Serve graduate who experienced homelessness, HOPE DAY ZONE fulfills a significant need for homeless women and their children who must leave the premises of shelters during daytime hours. HDZ offers a safe, secure environment in which families can use the arts as a form of creative expression, ultimately leading to increases in self-awareness, self-worth and self-esteem.
ACT IV: 2010 and Beyond
2013 – Arts for a Better Way of Life Festival (Whitehaven/June 28, 2013/CA)