Walter Dallas’s moods are all over the map these days. For months, he hasn’t been sleeping much—maybe two or three hours a night, he says. The excitement he feels about his upcoming production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms alternates with grinding worry over the future of Philadelphia’s Freedom Repertory Theatre, where he’s been artistic director since 1992.
It’s lunchtime on a balmy Saturday in December and Dallas is sitting in Tavern on Green, a casual bar/restaurant wreathed in Christmas greenery, waiting for a grilled tuna sandwich. And while he waits, he unwraps one of his favorite dreams. Some day, he says, he’d like to escort preteens from the theatre’s Performing Arts Training Program—many of whom have never been outside Philadelphia—to Ghana, one of the director’s own favorite haunts.
In the capital city of Accra, the Americans would learn about West Africa—“not focusing on the Diaspora and the slave trade, but working back to the richness of the culture,” Dallas explains. With their West African counterparts, they would participate in a performance in Accra’s beautiful new spaceship-shaped theatre. They’d do volunteer service to underline what Dallas calls “their responsibility to the community.” At some point, both American and West African preteens would retreat to a secluded—but not too secluded—area, camp out and enact a “rite of passage” ceremony to mark their entry into adulthood. “We would create it to speak to two fairly different cultures,” Dallas says.
He says he’s even “found the restaurant that would be the official restaurant”-a place that would be authentic, but not too authentic.
And when, he is asked, will this project come to fruition?
There’s a brief pause, then the punch line: “When I raise about a million dollars,” he says with a laugh.
These should have been the best of times for the 33-year-old Freedom Rep, which bills itself as the oldest African-American theatrical institution in the country. After all, Freedom—which encompasses both a repertory company and a successful performing-arts training school—was getting ready to fete the completion of its long-planned, long-delayed John E. Allen Jr. Theatre, named after its late founder. Allen, who died in 1992, had just been honored posthumously with a Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious local honor. And the new 299-seat venue was finally set to open Feb. 19 with a fundraising gala. Beginning Feb. 25, it would host Dallas’s updated, multiracial version of the O’Neill work, a co-production with the well-respected Court Theatre of Chicago, where the play had run for a month.
But construction delays have been just one headache in an extraordinarily trying year. Even as its artistic and infrastructure ambitions mounted, Freedom suddenly found itself faced with a crisis of both money and leadership. A clash of visions, and wills, between Dallas and the theatre’s managing director, Donald O.H. Brown, led to Brown’s departure last March.
A longtime Freedom trustee, the former publisher of Griot magazine and current president of the Greater Philadelphia Culture Alliance, Brown had stepped in as managing director in 1995 with what he calls “a very aggressive vision” for the theatre. He took what he says was a small, deficit-ridden organization and tried to build it into an engine for economic development for its North Philadelphia community. Recalls Brown: “I said, ‘I’m not interested in just being a theatre. The community needs schools. It needs jobs.’ ”
Brown’s tenure did see the successful completion of a $10-million capital campaign to fund the new theatre. But in the end, his plans—to merge with other arts organizations, mount an even more ambitious $120-million campaign and redevelop the theatre’s immediate neighborhood with artists’ housing, a new school and another 500-seat theatre—never got off the ground. “The expansion,” says Brown, “was causing a lot of strain.”
At the end of its 1998 fiscal year, Freedom had a deficit of $1.3 million. “I think the rapid growth of the organization in many ways outstripped the community’s ability to support it,” says Earle L. Bradford Jr., Freedom’s new board chairman. Barbara Silzle, Freedom’s director of artistic initiatives, also attributes the theatre’s difficulties to the recent transformations it has undergone. “Freedom at one point was a community theatre,” she says. “And it’s going through a shift. It’s not a community theatre, it’s a national theatre run by a national theatre artist”—Dallas—“with community connections.”
There’s no dispute that Brown’s departure set in motion a rethinking of Freedom’s mission and a dramatic paring-down of its personnel. A staff that had topped out at 60 was gradually reduced to 22, increasing the workload for those who remained.
Meanwhile, the theatre’s leadership—board chairman Bradford, Robert Osborne, who had taken over as interim managing director after Brown’s departure, and a reinvigorated Dallas—made the rounds of Philadelphia foundations and businesses. Freedom Theatre was integral to the city’s arts community, they told potential funders, and an indispensable part of Philadelphia’s African-American heritage. Now, the question was, would any of these communities ride to Freedom’s rescue?
Freedom Rep sits at the corner of Broad and Master Streets in North Philadelphia, one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods. It is housed in the stately Edwin Forrest mansion, a 19th-century red brick and stucco building that has been the focus of a careful and costly restoration effort.
Freedom’s environs are decidedly less elegant. Across Master Street are vacant lots filled with trash and weeds, as well as a Baptist church and a Head Start center. Next to Freedom is a modest corner grocery. Behind the theatre stand abandoned houses. Beside it, all along Broad Street, are fast-food restaurants, pawn shops, check-cashing stores—all the standard markers of inner-city poverty.
Founded by Allen and Robert E. Leslie in 1966, Freedom—now one of only two African-American theatres in the League of Resident Theatres (the other is New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Company)—was an outgrowth of the Black People’s Unity Movement, a locally based progressive organization that supported urban black communities. In founding the theatre, Freedom’s own internal documents say, the organization’s goals were “to make a positive statement about African-American people and affirm the importance of African-American culture.”
Even today, the theatre’s notion of freedom is linked to responsibility, self-discipline and self-respect. “I respect myself,” is an affirmation students in the Performing Arts Training Program are taught to repeat—at once a reminder and an exhortation.
The basement lobby, due to become a backstage area by this fall, still has a shabby air, its drab decor lightened only by few play posters. And, on a recent Saturday in December, the new theatre, with its proscenium stage and two balconies, remains a construction site. But upstairs, where the training program is in full swing, the halls burst with parents and children, and music issues from behind closed doors.
In one classroom, preteen students—led by a demonstrator—are practicing a class cheer. In another, boys and girls, some wearing colorful dashikis, sway to the rhythms of African dance. In a third, the school’s indefatigable director and award-winning choreographer Patricia Scott Hobbs rehearses one of four different casts of Tower of Power, an hour-long recruitment show. The show, along with a series of open houses, will introduce prospective students and their parents to Freedom’s unique pedagogy, with its blend of discipline and nurturing. “Tough love” is how alumna Antoinette Coward, now a dancer in New York, characterizes the Freedom formula.
The mix of abilities, ages and body types makes the recruitment show a real challenge, for Hobbs as well as for the students. “Is this the best that you can do?” Hobbs shouts to the mostly preteen assemblage, who have just stumbled their way through an acrobatic dance number.
“No,” they answer in chorus. They’ve been around long enough to know what’s coming next.
“Then why are you giving me less than your best?” Hobbs asks.
Hobbs later explains that Freedom’s instructional approach melds technical instruction in creative dramatics, acting, dance and music with African-American culture and personal development. The school provides advanced students with the opportunity to move towards professionalism in a program called Bridge to the Rep. Although a few Freedom alums have become famous—Erika Alexander of “The Cosby Show” and “Living Single” and Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men are examples—only 5 or 10 percent decide on performing-arts careers. So, in the end, the personal lessons may matter most.
“It’s important that you hold a student accountable for what they’re doing,” says Hobbs. At the same time, she says, “One of the things that I also was attracted to about Freedom Theatre is that it was a very nurturing environment. It talked about the things that you could do, and asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing this? Why haven’t you raised the bar, the level of what you think you’re able to do?'”
The school, which boasts that nearly 100 percent of its students finish high school, now has between 600 and 700 students in its regular classes, offered year-round. Outreach efforts at schools, recreation centers and agencies throughout the area involve hundreds more. With marketing at a low ebb, school enrollment has been falling, making recruiting efforts even more important.
Abdur Rahim Jackson, a 22-year-old veteran of the local modern dance troupe Philadanco who is studying dance at the Juilliard School, remembers Freedom’s lessons well. Jackson first came to the school at age 10, sang and acted—and then fell in love with dance. “My childhood wasn’t easy. I had a rough road,” says Jackson, whose mother was a single parent. Because his talent gave him many performing opportunities, he says, “my nose was in the air.” But that behavior didn’t cut it with his teachers at Freedom.
“It took me till senior year in high school to understand that it’s about being a good person,” he says. “I think I made a drastic change, and that helped everybody’s support for me.” Like other alums, Jackson drops in on Freedom to visit his old teachers whenever he’s back in Philly.
Freedom’s appeal lies in part in its intimacy. It doesn’t just draw from the community; it creates a new one, based on black middle-class values that can, in the end, transcend class. “It’s like an extended family,” says Pamela McGill, an elegant woman whose 15-year-old daughter, Alexis, is appearing in the teen version of Tower of Power.
Alexis McGill is a taut, vibrant presence on stage. Her dance technique is precise, focused, angular. But her wide smile betrays the joy that performance—as an actor, singer and dancer—affords her. While taking classes four days a week at Freedom, Alexis also dances at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She’s on the honor roll, too. “I demand it,” her mother says. Alexis says she entered Freedom with “low self-esteem,” but her teachers have challenged her to be as energetic and happy offstage as she is performing.
Another star-in-the-making is a stylish young tap dancer and actor named Johnnie Hobbs III. He’s the son of Patricia and Johnnie Hobbs Jr., a veteran of Freedom’s stage who now heads the acting program at the University of the Arts. Hobbs, 17, has been taking classes since he was four or five. “Discipline, focus, self-respect—that’s what I’ve learned from Freedom Theatre,” he says.
When Walter Dallas accepted the Freedom Theatre job after Allen’s death, it puzzled some of his friends. “What are you going up there for?” they said to him. They knew that Dallas, who had created the performance-arts training program at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, was a Yale Drama School grad with New York and regional theatre credits and a growing national reputation.
And Freedom—well, in 1992, while its school was flourishing, its company wasn’t yet much more than a top-flight community theatre. Productions were known for their raw energy and passion, but their quality was uneven. One high-water mark came in 1982, when Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign, starring Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and Nanci Nixon, transferred downtown to the Walnut Street Theatre. And then there was some of Dallas’s own early work with Freedom, including his 1989 restaging of Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly, starring Melba Moore, Millicent Sparks and (once again) Hobbs.
It was Dallas’s experience at Freedom, as well as his own background in the Black Arts movement, that helped make the match. “John Allen and I had the same dream,” he says, referring to the synergistic relationship between the theatre company and the professional training program. “I thought of it as a freedom to grow, a freedom to build, to create something.” There was freedom, too, in the job’s structure, which allowed Dallas to fit in directing stints at places such as the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (where the Court Theatre’s artistic director Charles Newell first saw his work).
Almost immediately after his arrival, Dallas renamed the company Freedom Repertory Theatre (it had been simply Freedom Theatre) to distinguish it from the school, and secured an Equity agreement. In his first year, he enlisted Lincoln Center Theater in a co-production of The Midnight Hour, a play about James Baldwin, a friend of his. Dallas also used his connections to attract more prominent performers and playwrights, including Ntozake Shange, to the theatre.
In 1994, with his then-assistant Ozzie Jones as director and Hobbs as choreographer, Dallas presided over the mounting of Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, a holiday song-and-dance spectacular that quickly became a Freedom Rep tradition.
Ironically, it was last fall’s cancellation of Black Nativity that first tipped the media to Freedom’s financial troubles. While waiting for its new theatre to open, Freedom had been renting other theatres in which to perform—and the $120,000 rent charged by the Annenberg Center suddenly seemed out of reach.
Silzle and Osborne both suggest that Freedom’s financial situation deteriorated in the summer of 1998, when a staging of August Wilson’s Jitney failed to attract large audiences, in part because of a mass-transit strike. The widening internal schism between Dallas and Brown also took its toll; today neither Brown nor Dallas will comment specifically on the rift. Both have signed an agreement forbidding such comment.
“There’s always a clash between the business and the artistic side as you’re trying to come to an agreement over resources,” Brown observes in retrospect. Once he had departed in March ’99, Brown’s redevelopment plans and his idea of doing “mergers” or “strategic alliances” with other arts organizations in financial need were jettisoned. The theatre’s focus returned to the basics: just the school and the stage.
One lingering problem was solved by year’s end. After much angst and discussion, Freedom finally got the State of Pennsylvania to double construction shifts on the new theatre—and pay for the resulting overtime. Even so, the project would barely be completed in time to host the mid-February fundraising gala.
And the quest for money continued. While some potential donors held back, there were also, beginning in October, some notable successes. The biggest grant—$750,000—came from First Union, including $500,000 to beef up the theatre’s small endowment. Other help came from the William Penn Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York-based Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Knight Foundation. Cigna and Sun Oil each threw in $25,000 to sponsor the Feb. 19 fundraising gala in honor of the new theatre. And, in mid-January, Boeing earmarked $300,000 in funds given to Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts to help meet Freedom’s burgeoning construction costs.
Since the theatre first announced its plight to potential funders at summer’s end, “they have rallied in a remarkable way,” said Maureen O’Connell, Freedom’s new director of marketing. Other help appears to be on the way. Ken Snyder, then-spokesman for Philadelphia’s mayor, John Street, said in January that the mayor believed Freedom was “vital to the fabric of Philadelphia,” and that he was “working on trying to identify resources that will help to save the theatre.”
After Christmas, as planned, Dallas flew to Chicago to work with the Court on Desire. The Court’s Charles Newell was enthusiastic about the collaboration. “There’s a quiet passion about his work,” the artistic director said of Dallas, whose vision of the O’Neill tragedy borrows from the interracial harmony of his hometown of Milner, Ga.
Before he left town, Dallas was doing his best to counter his own anxieties with optimism. “The bad news is we have no money,” he said. “The good news is that the right people know that and are coming to the rescue.”
Striding through the corridors of the mansion, he couldn’t help reflecting on Freedom’s own rite of passage. “It’s never felt better,” he insisted. “It’s never felt more right. You talk about growing pains…It hurts. But I don’t know of any institution like this in the country.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!