For the first time in more than 20 years, Nostrand Avenue's Black Lady Theater, also known as Slave II, was open to the public this weekend, one of hundreds of usually off-limits sites available for exploring as part of Open House New York.
Black Lady Theater was the sister site of the Bedford-Stuyvesant landmark, Slave Theater, where activists such as Al Sharpton and Cornell West held court during its heyday in the 1980s and '90s. Both were founded by John L. Phillips, Jr., a NYC Civil Court judge who made a fortune in real estate. When he couldn't find a distributor for the movie he wrote, produced and directed—called Hands Across Two Continents, about taboo interracial love set in the 1970s—he bought the pair of properties in 1984.
Phillips died in 2008 and there was a complicated legal battle over who owned the property. But the Black Lady Theater is now in the midst of a grand renovation by one of his former partners, Clarence Hardy, along with his son, Omar Hardy. The glass facade, for example, is all new, and the beginnings of a rebuilt stage was evident during the open house. The Hardys' plan for the space is ambitious, and includes live performances, screenings (both film and digital, as well as big events such as the Super Bowl), sporting contests like boxing, and a roof garden.
The big draw during OHNY, however, was seeing all of the old paintings and murals from both theaters, which were assembled here and somewhat haphazardly displayed. Falling very much under the category of Outsider Art, these pieces explore the legacy of slavery, expose the evil of the devil, celebrate black leaders, and illustrate African history and heritage. It will be interesting to see how many these wonderful works are incorporated into the rebirth of Slave II.
The Black Lady Theater - Slave II is located at 750 Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights.