Afrikan Poetry puts spotlight on arts scene

John Watsui Branch, executive director of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, helps a youngster light a candle during a Kwanzaa celebration. The theater is planning a slate of events this summer aimed at drawing Jamaica's artistic community.
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During the day, downtown Jamaica is jam-packed with young people shuffling to and from York College or shopping on Jamaica Avenue, but come nighttime the area doesn’t exactly have the cultural cache neighboring boroughs can claim.

“I know that me, personally, being an artist — a lot of the things I patronize are out of the borough,” said Aponi Smith, a board member at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre. “And when I’m at places in Brooklyn or Harlem, I run into people from Queens there.”

The cultural history of southeast Queens is by now well-documented — from jazz’s heyday in the early part of the 20th century to the modern hip-hop era — but Smith said the area is full of muralists, performers and other artists who would stay local if they had a neighborhood outlet.

The theater, on the outskirts of downtown at 176-03 Jamaica Ave., is planning some events for the summer aimed at creating the sort of artsy vibe enjoyed by other neighborhoods.

“Jamaica has a huge community of artists, but it’s not really a scene,” she said.

Starting July 11, the theater will host a weekly Summer Soul Cinema series. The Thursday night double features will begin with an indoor screening at 7 p.m. followed by a showing in the theater’s outdoor courtyard and an after-party where artists and patrons can mingle.

The cultural center will also be providing acting workshops.

Smith, who also goes by the stage name Apani B. Fly, is an emcee who has worked with musicians such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

She collaborated with Hasan Johnson, the artist who created the “Stop the Violence” mural outside the Parsons/Archer subway stop, to adorn the theater’s courtyard.

Afrikan Poetry, she said, is operating on a shoestring budget after funding cutbacks, and she is drawing on “favors and phone calls” to head up the summer’s ambitious programs.

Smith said the beauty supply stores that line Jamaica Avenue are doing good business, and there is no reason their daytime customers cannot be the neighborhood’s night-time art patrons.

“Who’s buying all those hair weaves?” she asked. “Not old people.”

Plans for a sit-down barbecue restaurant and a new hotel are also in the works for the long-sought-after revitalization of downtown Jamaica.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Posted 8:17 pm, July 3, 2013
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