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Queens Chronicle

Honoring black culture year-round through the arts

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Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2014 10:30 am

Queens is full of different cultures, ethnicities and social groups, and the art produced in the borough reflects that.

African-American theater, film and music venues have become major contributors to the borough and help tell the stories of nearby artists and artists from around the world.

Many of these spaces were founded in the 1970s when cultural expression within the black community was beginning to take a different turn that embraced their ancestors’ roots as well as American contemporary theater and film.

Most famously, there is the Apollo Theater in Harlem but smaller venues that focus on attracting locals have become more and more popular as they expose people to art they might otherwise never get to experience.

The largest of these venues in Queens is the Black Spectrum Theatre, founded in 1970 by writer, producer and filmmaker Carl Clay.

It is the only professional theater company reaching out to people of African descent in Queens and serves the large African-American, Caribbean-American and Latino populations in the area including Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans and Laurelton.

Originally created to be a theatre troupe, Black Spectrum Theatre traveled throughout the borough and the country to put on shows for viewers.

The group now has a 325-seat state-of-the-art theater at 177th Street and Baisley Boulevard in Jamaica, where it serves 20,000 audience members annually through various plays, musicals and a social issue video series.

Though Black Spectrum is certainly the largest, it isn’t the only Queens venue founded by and catering to African Americans.

The Afrikan Poetry Theatre, located at 176-03 Jamaica Ave. in Jamaica, opened its center in 1978 with a mission to bring jazz, funk and African rhythms to members’ poetry.

“As the years have gone on, we’ve taken on new goals,” Saiku Branch, the program coordinator for the theater said. “We work on a lot of social programming with adverse youth and while we still have poetry, open mics and piano classes, we try to keep everything affordable for families.”

Branch said the need for people to understand culture will always be present and that the best way to meet it is to reach out to youth.

“We believe that if people understand the beauty of their culture, they’ll aspire to do more,” he said. “We’ve been opening up to work with groups from Central America, India, Pakistan to help young people in a low-income environment have a place to belong.”

Welcome to the discussion.