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Slave Theater anchors district near Barclays

Jeff Strabone, former Cobble Hill Association president and newly elected corresponding secretary of the association, has alerted us to an ambitious mission conceived by a former student of his at New York University. It is a project that, if successful, would benefit the entire borough.

Brooklynite Jonathan Solari, a 26-year-old stage director, has homed in on an historic theater “wedged between the Barclay’s Center and the proposed Bedford Historic District,” in his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he explained in an email exchange. He warned that, if not rescued, the culturally significant Slave Theater is sure to suffer the fate of other such vulnerable yet venerable buildings and be “lost to developers.”

The structure began life in 1910 as the Regent movie house, catering to working class Brooklynites. In the 1970s, controversial Civil Court Judge John Phillips, who owned the building, renamed it the Slave Theater, whereupon it became a platform for civil rights activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. But despite its rich history, the Slave has been dormant for over a decade.

Solari envisions the restoration of this historic landmark as three separate performance spaces. The formerly elegant 550-seat main stage retains early 20th-century detail and would be restored to its original elegance as home to two productions each season. A 200-seat flexible black box theater would host three in-house performances per season, and a cabaret space would highlight the work of local writers, musicians, and spoken-word artists.

The young theatrical entrepreneur found a producing partner in Sarah Wolff. The two have built a team to purchase and save the theater, incorporating New Brooklyn Theater as a 501(c)3.

“After initially considering all possible fundraising options,” Solari wrote, “we felt that the strongest first move was a crowd-funding campaign.” The group pitched to Kickstarter, which agreed to promote NBT through its popular website.

“We have had a strong start with over 100 backers pledging over $17,000, gaining the attention of community leaders and politicians,” Solari observed.

Through Kickstarter, NBT hopes to raise $200,000 — the amount needed for a down payment on the Slave—by Oct. 4. The cost of a total renovation is estimated to be between $3.5 and $5 million.

“We think it wise to engage with the community,” Sarah Wolff said in a press release. “We have our own convictions about the value of the arts in the community, and we feel our vision for a multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural performing arts center developing Brooklyn artists for Brooklyn audiences will bring more value to the community than any other type of development.”

In the NBT Kickstarter promotional video, Jonathan Solari invokes legendary theater impresarios such as Joseph Papp and even wealthy ancient Greeks, whose patronage of festivals provided the foundation for modern theater.

This may sound a little flashy, but not in the eyes of Solari’s former professor, Jeff Strabone, who noted that “Great cultural institutions are not founded every day … I can honestly say that I do not know a young person with as much vision and ambition as Jonathan. I have every confidence that he can turn this neglected, rundown gem of a building into Brooklyn’s newest treasure.”

The New Brooklyn Theater Kickstarter promo can be found at bit.ly/NBTKickstarter. And, of course, you can support the initiative at Kickstarter as well.
September 7, 2012 - 2:27pm


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