June 30 party to christen Langston Hughes center's improvements
A look inside the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in Seattle's Central District, which is already busy with community arts activities after undergoing some renovation and seismic reinforcement work. An open house is June 30, 2012.
Seattle Times theater critic
Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center Open House11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, "Black Artists of the Silver Screen," screenings of comedy, jazz and musical film shorts plus discussion sessions, sweet tea and desserts available, LHPAC, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; free (206-684-4757 or www.langstonarts.org). Note: 6-9 p.m. Saturday is the "Seattle's Harlem Renaissance" gala fundraiser at the center; $100-$250 (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
"Isn't it beautiful?" asks Royal Alley-Barnes, after a tour of the newly renovated Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.
Alley-Barnes, the center's executive director, is referring to the whole Central District building, which originated as a Jewish synagogue and has been a community arts center since 1969. But she is especially singling out the shiny maple hardwood floor in the lower-level hall.
That new floor, she and director Jacqueline Moscou pledge, will allow more Seattle dance groups to teach, rehearse and perform at Langston Hughes, which is officially reopening this weekend — an open house is on Saturday — after a closure of about two years and a $2.8 million overhaul. (In April the facility presented the 2012 African American Film Festival.)
Financed by Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation through the Parks and Green Spaces Levy, and by a Washington state Building for the Arts grant, the rehab has spruced up the interior of this nearly century-old landmark substantially.
The 288-seat auditorium has new carpets, and seats with plush new burgundy upholstery. The lobby's antique Tiffany light fixtures have been restored. The imposing ceiling dome, a central feature in architect B. Marcus Priteca's original design, has been repainted white (it was "Pepto-Bismol pink before," Alley-Barnes notes). And among the seismic retrofits, the dome has been strengthened.
The downstairs kitchen is now state-of-the-art, with a restaurant-grade gas stove and stainless-steel refrigerators. And the bathrooms also have had a makeover, with fresh paint and gleaming new tile.
But the Langston Hughes staff is just as proud of the changes patrons won't immediately spot.
The structure has been rewired and brought up to fire codes. And thanks to new plumbing, reports Alley-Barnes, "We can now drink the water here. Before there was lead in the pipes."
Moscou is excited about other upgrades that will have a direct impact on the theater, dance, film and other activities the center staff will offer to the Central District, and wider community.
The theater has been updated considerably. "We now have more technology, more lighting and space on the stage," she says. "Now we can do live-streaming and stage recording." A large screen for Skype is available.
A former office is now a studio apartment for artists-in-residence invited to Langston Hughes. The first resident, Jennifer Johns, an Oakland, Calif.-based musician on a fellowship from the food-policy think tank Food First, created a multimedia project at the center earlier this month, with "a full meal featuring flavors from around the world that mirror some of the cultures present in the Central District."
Though events at Langston Hughes will take some months to get up to speed, the center has restarted its performing-arts classes for local youths, and drop-in open-mike and music events. The center is reviving its annual summer tradition of staging a teen musical, with an Aug. 17-23 run of the show "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope." A new play-reading series, and the reinstating of an annual production with professional adult actors, will happen in 2013. (Moscou is considering a new piece about the late comedian Moms Mabley for next year.)
The outlook for Langston Hughes seems more stable than several years ago. In 2008, internal personnel strife and disagreements between then-director Manuel Cawaling and Moscou over the mission of the largely city-subsidized center stirred controversy. (The maintenance and small staff of Langston Hughes are paid for by Seattle's Parks and Recreation Department. A separate nonprofit organization raises funds for programs and events.)
The rift became so heated that Moscou, who strongly advocated an African-American programming focus, was placed on administrative leave. She was reinstated, and Cawaling and other staffers resigned. Alley-Barnes, a former city Parks and Recreation manager, became the top executive in early 2009.
In its next phase, the center (named for the prominent black poet) will continue to reflect on "an iconic body of African-American" works of art, says Alley-Barnes.
It will also encourage new works and community collaborations with such partner organizations as Seattle Theatre Group, Earshot Jazz Festival, the Seattle Symphony and smaller arts groups.
Misha Berson: email@example.com