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Reborn from the ashes, theater seeks to grow

Housed in a nondescript storefront on 176th Street and Jamaica Avenue, the Afrikan Poetry Theatre has been serving the South Jamaica community with an amazing variety of programs and services for twenty three years, and still does, despite the electrical fire on February 27 that damaged the building.

“The first floor is still okay but the second floor is messed up,” said John Watusi Branch, the theater’s co-founder and executive director. “The water damage on the first floor was repaired but upstairs we lost a lot of things: books, computers, furniture. Five rooms were really badly damaged.”

The theater held a fund-raiser Friday night to drum up financial support for the building’s renovation.

“The fund-raiser was a little low,” he admitted—the weather had been cold and rainy, after all—“but we raised some money. Some politicians came through and had some promising things to say in terms of substantial support.” The list of visiting dignitaries included City Councilmen William Scarborough, Leroy Comrie and Alan Jennings. Branch also met with Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who helped secure emergency funds for the theater, and state Sen. Malcolm Smith, who is trying to procure state capital improvement funding.

“What we envision is to have a state-of-the-art African cultural center,” Branch explained. “We have an architect working on these plans and in the meantime we’re trying to buy the space. We’ve been renting for 23 years”

The main theater space will get new equipment for concerts and theater, the upstairs art gallery will be upgraded, the computer lab, which “wasn’t damaged too much” will be fixed up, a library will be rebuilt and a video room will be constructed to show films and education pieces from Africa, Branch said. “We’d like to put in a mini shop and make use of the basement as well.”

Branch estimates that the cost of renovation will be about $700,000. “That’s a lot of money, but not nearly as much as some projects that go on,” he said. “The owner’s waiting for his insurance check to see how much he gets, and it’s coming very soon. We would like to see the renovation completed in no longer than a year, maybe by the summer of 2003. The City Council’s already put something in the new budget to be approved, plus there are other private and grant monies.”

The secret to the theater’s success seems to be its accessibility within the southern Queens community. “People always came to us with their skills and ideas,” Branch said. “Some work and some don’t, but we have 20 different programs including a youth program, summer cultural crafts, manhood development, a new Rites of Passage program on Saturdays this summer. We’ve always trained young people in writing and dance and run literary workshops, open house lectures by scholars, jazz concerts.”

These programs are continuing despite both the fire and city and statewide budget cuts. Branch’s educational trips to Africa are unhindered as well. He is going with a small group at the end of July. Among the countries his groups have visited are Ghana, one of whose villages just elected their first woman chief, Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal and South Africa, which he visited just as Apartheid was being messily dismantled.

Branch remains optimistic of the theater’s future. “We want to develop more youth programs, that’s a major concentration for us,” he said. “We’re always reaching different parts of the community.”

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