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The Play on Sugar Hill

Katherine Butler Jones is a longtime leader in education and community activism in the Boston area. She co-founded the METCO busing program in the 1960s and has also published a number of historical writings.

At 70, and a mother of eight, Jones is adding one more title to her extensive resume: playwright.

Her new drama is called '409 Edgecombew Avenue: The House on Sugar Hill' about her childhood home in Harlem. It's being staged in Boston by 'Up You Mighty Race,' a Dorchester-based theater company that produces historical plays about the experiences of black people in America.

WBUR's Arts and Culture reporter Andrea Shea has more on the story.

TEXT OF STORY

ANDREA SHEA: At a recent rehearsal the nine actors who star in '409 Edgecombe Avenue: the House on Sugar Hill' mill around the theater at the Boston Center for the Arts...moving props and waiting for direction. Off to the side Rocque Bridgewaters practices his part.

ROCQUE BRIDGEWATERS: The opening line is: 'I grew up here, when this house was a centerpiece of the Negro community. Walter White, executive secretary for the NAACP and his family live next door to our family on the 13th floor.'

SHEA: The NAACP's W.E.B. Dubois also lived on the 13th floor of this landmark building in Harlem. Thurgood Marshall was on the 9th. Actor Paul Robeson and poet William Braithwait were neighbors. And it's said Duke Ellington partied at 409 Edgecombe Avenue.

KATHERINE BUTLER JONES: It was a fascinating place to grow up, especially at the time I was living there.

SHEA: That's Katherine Butler Jones. She's been in Boston for 50 years, but lived in the real 409 Edgecomb from 1936 to 1957, during and after Harlem's heyday. Jones says the building was like a 'vertical community' back then, with people from all walks of life living and working there. Now it serves as the backdrop for her first play. The set she says, is like a time machine...with its glass doors, herringbone floor, vintage telephone and gated elevator.

BUTLER JONES: This lobby is really the exact replica of the lobby in 409 I feel like I'm back in the building.

SHEA: But during her twenty-one years in that building Jones says a very flamboyant and influential woman was never mentioned: Madame Stephanie St. Clair.

BUTLER JONES: So I wanted to know why is it I haven't heard about this lady. (laughs) She's not in any of the books about African American women and the reason is because she was involved in something that was considered quasi-legal at the time.

SHEA: And now Madame St. Clair is at the center of Jones' new play. An immigrant from Martinique...St. Clair was known as the 'Harlem Numbers Queen' in the 1930's. She was rich and powerful...and while she held her own against some of the toughest crime bosses in New York...including Lucky Luciano...the Queen also bought advertising space in the local paper to speak her mind...and to encourage people in her community to vote. It's these contradictions that make St. Clair such a juicy character, according to the play's director, Akiba Abaka.

AKIBA ABAKA: So how do we bring them all together, where do we find the truth, how do we create a truthful character on stage that's not stereotypical and that's not unchallenging at the same time.

SCENE FROM PLAY: 'So you think you can come into Harlem and run numbers on these so-called stores, well I'll show you how welcome you are.'

SHEA: Actress Fulani Haynes is Madame St. Clair in the play.

SCENE FROM PLAY: 'If you don't get out of Harlem now something worse will happen to you.'

ABAKA: The name of our company comes from a speech given by Marcus Garvey, he once said 'up you mighty race you can accomplish what you will.

SHEA: Akiba Abaka is in her late twenties and founded 'Up You Mighty Race' six years ago. It's based in Dorchester, and early on Abaka says the company focused on classics about the black American experience.

ABAKA: You know in the past we've done the work of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, Ed Bullins and some of the more noted writers. As we continued to develop what I saw was that we could develop our own plays and so that's what inspired this season which is called 'news from the locals.

SHEA: Locals such as Katherine Butler Jones and her first-ever play '409 Edgecombe Avenue.'

KAY BOURNE: Theater is a collaboration, so that's not so rare. What is rare is the subject matter and its relationship to Boston.

SHEA: Kay Bourne was Arts Editor for 'The Bay State Banner' for forty years. Now she's working on a book about black presence in the Boston arts scene over the centuries. Bourne attended a reading of '409 Edgecombe Avenue' before it was fully developed into a play, and says 'Up You Mighty Race' director Akiba Abaka is doing something that isn't often done in Boston.

BOURNE: There are many theater artists in Boston who have been somewhat neglected, among them playwrights. If you don't get your plays done you don't grow as a playwright. Akiba is being quite courageous to do new playwrights because frankly the critics slam new playwrights unless they're well-established and come from New York.

ABAKA: I don't think we have anything to lose by welcoming new playwrights.

SHEA: Again, Director Akiba Abaka.

ABAKA: I don't really look at it as risky...to go from thought...to text...to stage...to performance that's a great ride.

SHEA: It's been more than a great ride for activist-turned-playwright Katherine Butler Jones. Jones says she's always loved theater...even as a kid in Harlem...but thinks the scene here is lacking.

BUTLER JONES: Obviously there are not enough plays that are done that do indeed address the community of color, so that's an issue that needs to be raised to the surface, and the limited opportunities for actors of color, that needs to be changed. So there's a lot of room for improvement in Boston in that area.

SHEA: And, in light of the recent spate of violence in Boston, Katherine Butler Jones says she hopes audiences will hear the message that's central to her play: that we're not going to make it unless we form community.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on April 9, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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