National Black Theatre in East Harlem Proposes 21-Story Building on Its Site



National Black Theatre exterior along Fifth Avenue at 125th Street, February 11, 2020

A notice of Public Hearing has been issued by Community Board Eleven regarding a proposal by the National Black Theater to develop its current site, 2031-2033 Fifth Avenue (Block 1750, Lot 1) to become a 21-story, mixed-use building. The current site occupies a full block on Fifth Avenue, running from 125th to 126th Streets, with the proposal including a mix of theater, retail and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH).

Rendering of new National Black Theater building via Placeful

The Public Hearing took place on Wednesday, July 12th at 6:30pm at the National Black Theater. On October 18, 2017, the City Planning Commission issued a favorable report on the application by NBT Victory Development LLC. Here is the update via 125 BID and

To give you some background on this beloved local institution, The National Black Theatre was founded in 1968 by the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer who was an African-American writer, producer, teacher and actress. The National Black Theatre’s exterior was designed by the Haitian-American architect Gerard Paul.  Within its walls, the Theatre houses the largest collection of Nigerian New Sacred Art in the Western Hemisphere, which includes hand carved wood totems and copper, aluminum and brass relief art done by traditional Nigerian artisans (images below)  The 64,000 square feet of space is divided between two buildings, each three stories high.  The interior was designed by five new Sacred Nigerian Artists from Oshogbo, Nigeria.

Dr. Teer took her first trip to Africa with the help of a Ford Foundation fellowship – it was on that trip that she commissioned the Nigerian artists from the Sun-Osogbo Sacred Grove to carve the interior and exterior artwork. These artists used tools and methods which spanned seven generations.

Above, aluminum and brass relief inside the Theatre.

National Black Theatre exterior along Fifth Avenue at 125th Street

The image above is the exterior of the current building, along Fifth Avenue from 125th Street to the mid-block moving North.

Corner of 125th Street & Fifth Avenue in East Harlem

The interior and exterior relief art was commissioned and created on the premises by seven traditional New Sacred Nigerian Artists from Oshogbo, Nigeria.

Vandalized artwork along 125th Street near Fifth Avenue in East Harlem

Part of the exterior artwork (above), vandalized, and we have no word on a preservation effort when construction begins.

Corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem

Dr. Teer dedicated her life to the preservation and sustenance of a unique spiritual tradition that she believed flows from an African world-view of art.  Her thinking was that community based theatre is the most promising way to realize economic potential and the theatre’s mission was self-empowerment and training for a new generation of artists and creative entrepreneurs.  Dr. Teer also believed that for the black artist to have creative freedom and for their ancestral heritage to flourish, they must pass from generation to generation a tangible legacy of theatre art.  She strongly believed in utilizing the symbolism, rituals and mythology of the West African traditions.  This method shifted the Western theatre from a “self-conscious” art form to a “God-conscious” art form – allowing artistic expression to thrive on audience participation, similar to that found in Black churches.  She called this the TEER Technology – The Technology of Soul.

Their programs consist of not only theatre arts but also visual art exhibits, workshops, seminars and conferences.  The Liberation Temple on the third floor of one of the two buildings in this complex is a huge octagonal shaped room that can seat up to 270 people.  Alicia Keys, Patti LaBelle and Nina Simone have performed here and Donald Faison started his career here.

The Nation Black Theatre is the first revenue-generating Black theatre arts complex and although they have gone through some tough financial difficulties, they have remained a viable part of a growing community.

You can follow their calendar of events on their website and also follow them on Facebook.

City Council Approves East Harlem Rezoning here.

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