It was only a few decades ago that Black entertainers faced virtually total segregation of performance venues. Yet, they still performed. The “chitlin’ circuit” offered a number venues (many white-owned) where African Americans were permitted to entertain. In Philadelphia, Bushfire Theatre stands as one of the superb artistic outlets that offer training and a performance opportunity. This month, the 35th anniversary fundraiser for Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts will feature the comedic performance of Bill Cosby.
Founded in 1977 by Al Simpkins, Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts bought the old Locust Street Theater that dates back to 1909. The theater, purchased in 1980, is at 52nd and Locust streets in West Philadelphia. The historically designed building was once a vaudeville house turned movie house that was abandoned and in disrepair. It is now a 428-seat performing arts space.
Bushfire’s mission, as posted on its website, reads, “Our objective to provide African-American artists with professional theatre opportunities has been ongoing since 1985 and we have satisfied a major goal of providing the West Philadelphia community with a professional theatre. Bushfire is now considered amongst the oldest inner-city professional theatre companies. In 1983, the 52nd Street Writer’s Workshop was established with assistance from writers such as Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Fuller, Rufus Caleb and the late Billy Graham. The 52nd Street Writer’s Workshop continued to grow and developed a close relationship with the late director Lloyd Richards, playwrights Jeff Stetson, P. J. Gibson, Judi Ann Mason, Richard Wesley and the late Matt Robinson. In 1994, Bushfire, with the help of P. J. Gibson, Kathleen McGhee Anderson, Pearl Cleage, and Clyde Santana, developed the Playwrights Think Tank Symposium. Annually, African-American playwrights come to Bushfire to discuss issues important to their craft. From the Playwrights Think Tank Symposium began the Langston Hughes Playwrights Workshop. In August 2008, we continued our annual Langston Hughes Playwrights Workshop.”
Over the years, Bushfire has renovated all of its facilities through internal resources and the support of the immediate community. The venue became a professional theater in 1983 when it became a member of Actors Equity Association. Cosby is by any standard one of the most influential stars in America today. His humor often centers on the basic cornerstones of human existence, seeking to provide insight into people’s roles as parents, children, family members and men and women. Cosby, 76, broke television’s racial barrier with “I Spy,” becoming the first African American to costar on a television series while winning three consecutive Emmys. He created and produced the Emmy-winning cartoon “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” which began airing in the 1970s and was made into a film in 2004. The show, based on Cosby’s childhood in Philadelphia, was designed to educate and entertain. The 1984-1992 run of “The Cosby Show” featured many actors from community-based theaters, including actress Erika Alexander, who trained at North Philly’s Freedom Theater. In preparing for his upcoming hometown benefit performance, Cosby was passionate in explaining why it is paramount for African Americans to support and uplift their creative community.
“You know, I can’t tell you how important this theater is to the community, to people who, right there in Philadelphia, can take the family to see something that has the intelligence and the education, the integrity — there is no foolishness in [Bushfire Theatre] plays — the examination of humanitarianism and, of course, there are people that may not be of the African Diaspora who may feel it is not for them, but my answer to them is: Why don’t you understand that we have been watching the mass output of your movies — all white, except if the Negro shows up in it, then something negative is going to happen solely because this person showed up — and the message that you get from these old movies of the ’40s and the ’50s is that we (Blacks) happen to be the problem, so if we don’t show up there won’t be no problem, is what they were saying. It wasn’t given a thoughtful, truthful answer with integrity that racism from any color is a mental illness.”
Cosby has received the Kennedy Center Honors, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honor), the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Marian Anderson Award. In his current best-seller “I Didn’t Ask to Be Born, But I’m Glad I Was,” he talks about the Bible, being a grandfather and his first love in his humorous and insightful manner.
While Cosby can boast an illustrious list of accomplishments, he still challenges the residents of his hometown to commit their time and money to maintaining community art endeavors, such as Bushfire Theatre.
“People…feel that they don’t have the money, but that is an excuse for the reason that they don’t think it’s going to be entertaining. You’ve got to give [Bushfire] and the other theaters a chance to show you — you’ve got to go. You’ve got to take your little brother or sister or somebody, because these experiences happen to be coming from the writer that may be speaking to you from the same kind of area that you were brought up in. It doesn’t have to be Loraine Hansberry AGAIN. It doesn’t have to be August Wilson AGAIN. Or maybe a repeat of James Baldwin’s ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain.’ It’s something new, and here are the people you are supporting when you go to the theater: You’re supporting gifted, thinking writers who have something from in their minds and deep in the spirit. I mean, if you think about what theater could show you — this is not an exam, so you don’t sit there and then afterwards people ask you hard questions — you watch human beings act out parts of life.
“And let me go back to the other thing, because it keeps lingering: When I was a child, they had a thing out at Camp Green Lane. We were living in Richard Allen Projects, and I was about eight or nine. Through the center at the projects, my mother paid $9.50 and the bus picked us up and we spent 10 days at Camp Green Lane. I had never been in the forest before. But this was a camp that took boys from the housing projects and lower economic level. My mother had no money, so my point is if there is something, somehow that the people can put that $10 up in order to get to the theater to see a play, to see real actors, to hear the real music, to see how the sets change, it can become a part of a learning and growing experience.”
“An Evening with Bill Cosby” takes place in Lew Klein Hall in the Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St., on Thursday, Oct 17 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the 35th-anniversary fundraiser for Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased at the Liacouras Center box office. A limited number of discounted tickets is available for students with valid I.D. The Temple Performing Arts Center is located 1837 N. Broad St. For information, call (215) 204-9068 or visit http://templeperformingartscenter.org/events/2013/evening-bill-cosby.
Contact Tribune Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or email@example.com.