In an atmosphere filled with love and appreciation, the Black theatre community last month rallied at the Symphony Theatre on New York’s Upper West Side. The occasion was the AUDELCO Awards presentation, an annual event honoring distinguished contributions to the Black theatre community.
AUDELCO [Audience Development Committee] is a non-profit corporation founded in 1973 by Vivian Robinson, Renee Chenoweth, Doris Smith and Winifred Richardson for the purpose of generating greater recognition, understanding and awareness of the arts in Black communities.
Over the past six years, the organization has become a major force in the building of audiences for Black productions, an institution vital to the survival of small theatre companies ignored by the media. Yet the New York State Council on the Arts insists that AUDELCO is a social club, and therefore not eligible for a Grant. “I take that as a terrible insult,} says Vivian Robinson, “because we are not a social club, and I don’t need this for my social life. I don’t know of any social club that is doing the sort of things we do, and if social clubs did what we do they should be funded, because anything that helps the arts ought to be supported and encouraged.”
Giving individual recognition to people actively engaged in creative theatre work, those generally ignored when other awards are given out, is but a small part of AUDELCO’s activity. The organization’s main concern is the survival of the many ill-financed Black theatre companies from which tomorrow’s stars will sprout, companies that are often rich with talent but whose future hangs in a balance for lack of audience support. We get people out to thirty or forty theatre events annually, says Ms. Robinson, and we are not restricted to any one section of the city. Broadway doesn’t need that much help from us, but if our friends want to see Broadway shows we will try to arrange it for them.
For the most part, Black theatre operates in areas where critics fear to tread after dark, out-of-the-way places such as storefronts, community centers and lofts. That makes it difficult for many productions to receive adequate media coverage, but AUDELCO will deliver an audience to such places.
AUDELCO Award winner Ernie McClintok, Artistic Director for the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech is an enthusiastic supporter of the organization. “It is the most significant theatre organization that I know of in this area,” he says, “it gets people into the theaters and assists tremendously in showcasing Black talent.” ROUTES contributor A.Peter Bailey, who is Associate Director of the Black Theatre Alliance and Chairman of the AUDELCO Awards Committee, notes that BTA’s relationship with AUDELCO has been crucial in aiding the development and continued support of Black theatre. AUDELCO saw a need and had the vision and dedication to fill it, he says. Black theatre is forever in its debt.
There are some fifty Harlem-based cultural organizations operating on a minuscule budget, depending largely — or, in some cases, totally — on grass roots support for survival.
AUDELCO has taken the first step to create what it hopes someday will be a cultural center for both the preservation of theatrical memorabilia and the dissemination of cultural information — a place where the past is honored and the future is honed.
That dream began to materialize in the past year as AUDELCO leased a four-story brownstone on 126th Street, in the heart of the Harlem community, setting up the various floors for meetings, seminars and cultural activities. To keep AUDELCO audiences informed of the organization’s activities and theatre happenings in general, a Hot Line — (212) PL9-2424 — has been installed [functioning on Mondays and Wednesdays only] and a newsletter, Intermission, is published and sent out to AUDELCO’s mailing list quarterly.
The sky’s the limit, says Program Coordinator Renee Chenowith. It is only for lack of adequate financing that we are not further along, but, when you really think about it, six years is a pretty good track record.
This year marked the first time AUDELCO’s awards ceremony was held outside of Harlem, a fact that saddened its founding ladies, who had sought to secure the Apollo Theatre for the event. As things turned out, the Apollo’s new management asked for such an exorbitant fee that AUDELCO shifted its ceremony to the more reasonably priced Symphony Theatre, at 95th and Broadway.
That is a sad commentary on the attitude of the Apollo’s new owners toward a group that has done so much to keep Harlem’s artistic community alive. AUDELCO has always felt it important to center its activities in Harlem, and for an institution as large and established as the Apollo to put profit before the good of the community that supports it seems, to say the least, self-defeating. It leads one to strongly question the historic theatre’s relevancy to the Black community.
Despite such obstacles, AUDELCO continues to provide the kind of cultural enrichment needed to strengthen and revitalize the Harlem community. As Ms. Robinson states “We do it because no one else is doing it. We who are involved in the present should be concerned about the future and aware of the past. It should concern us that the history of Black theatre is so greatly ignored, for it is from its rich, deep roots that the future must sprout.
For information on AUDELCO and its activities, write AUDELCO, PO Box 30, Manhattanville Station, New York, NY 10027—or call (212) 759-2424.