In Philadephia, Another Battle for Freedom

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Upheaval and protest around the historic black company raise the question: Who owns New Freedom Theatre?

At Broad and Master streets in North Philadelphia, a small historic plaque reads:

Formerly the home of actor Edwin Forrest, later Philadelphia School of Design for Women. Became Heritage House, then in 1968, Freedom Theatre, a community-based Black theater for professional instruction in the theatrical arts.

You can stop in at any time to register for acting classes or purchase tickets for an upcoming production in Freedom’s 50th anniversary season. You can peer inside the recently renovated historic parlor, where portraits of Freedom’s cofounders, John Allen and Bob Leslie, are displayed with pride.

You’ll be greeted these days by a security guard. Or perhaps a gathering of angry protestors. Perhaps both.

“What you’ve got to understand,” says Ozzie Jones, former guest artistic director of Freedom Theatre and prominent Philadelphia director and playwright, “is that the legacy of John and Bob was such a similar legacy to the Black Arts movement—Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks—where the theatre could not only be a platform for the community to come and make art about their condition, but could also be a haven from the human struggles of life and the reality of racism. A haven from feeling voiceless.

“When I was at Freedom,” Jones continues, “people would just walk in off the street. They’d walk up: ‘Hey, what’s happening in that room?’ ‘We’re having a rehearsal, come on in.’ And you’d look up, and that kid who walked in off the street—he’s been in class now for three months, he’s in a play now. That’s what Freedom is. Not this—not what’s been going on.”

Jones is one of many hundreds of black artists who think of the New Freedom Theatre, often known simply as “Freedom,” as an important artistic home—one among generations of black performers in Philadelphia who came of age in the theatre’s much-lauded educational programs. He’s also among the many alumni who have vowed not to set foot inside the building until substantial changes in Freedom’s administration have  been made. He joins hundreds of others who have recently signed an online petition demanding that the board remove executive producing director Sandra Haughton and meet with the alumni in the interest of transparency.

Protests of Freedom events have been ongoing since the middle of summer, when Haughton terminated three longtime employees of the theatre: Patricia Scott Hobbs, a multiple Barrymore-award winning artist and educator, as well as Gail Leslie and Diane Leslie, daughters of cofounder Bob Leslie. All three women had worked at the theatre for nearly 40 years and were widely beloved by students and parents alike.

At the beginning of July, all three women were given a two-hour window to remove their personal belongings, during which they were escorted by security as they removed decades’ worth of memories and personal effects before they were themselves removed from the premises. But while the legacy educators eventually packed up their belongings and left, both the security guards and the protestors remain.

On Monday, Sept. 19, Oklahoma police released a video of police officer Betty Shelby shooting Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, as he raised his arms above his head. The video has triggered another cycle of national outrage, anger, grief, and denial on the subject of police brutality against black citizens.

That same Monday evening, Freedom Theatre opened its doors to the community for a town hall forum on diversity within the theatre. Sponsored by Theatre Philadelphia, a local umbrella organization, the event was by all accounts well attended, vibrant, and thought-provoking. After a lengthy discussion, the meeting adjourned for a wine and cheese reception in the parlor.

“If there was anything that could have been called a ‘disturbance’ or ‘cacophony,’ it was the noise created by meeting and greeting and exchanging business cards and munching on cheese,” recalls actor Lary Moten. “It was loud—hard to hear any kind of conversation.”

Lary Moten.
Lary Moten.

Which is why not everyone noticed at first when Moten was asked by a police officer to leave; he says he was informed that he was making a disturbance and needed to step outside. “When I walked out, six or seven black men were outside the theatre. The police officer addressed all of us and told us that we needed to leave. As I was asking why, he was putting my hands behind my back. He took me away, put me against the wall, handcuffed me, and led me downstairs.

“To this day,” Moten adds, “I do not know why.”

Playwright James Ijames, who was present that night and witnessed Moten’s detainment and subsequent release, penned an open letter to New Freedom’s management. It quickly garnered hundreds of horrified comments on social media from fellow Philadelphia artists, aghast at Moten’s treatment and demanding answers.

“If you protest, you legally can’t come into the building,” says Haughton, who claimed that she was acting on the advice of hired security firm, Champion Security, when she called the police and asked them to escort Moten and the other men from the premises. “I informed this man before the meeting that if he came back into the building and caused any kind of problems or disruption, that we would ask him to leave. And that’s what happened. And he wouldn’t leave.”

When asked if he had been involved in earlier protests against Freedom Theatre, Moten says he had not set foot inside the building, by his estimate, for at least two years. “Honestly,” he says, drawing a slow breath, “if you set anyone in front of me and told me that it was Sandra Haughton, I would have to believe you. I’ve never met Sandra Haughton before in my life.”

 

The financial strains throughout Freedom’s history are well documented. Haughton, who has been with the theatre off and on for 26 years, was recruited by the founders to manage their capital campaign in 1991. A Wharton School of Business graduate, she has seen the institution through periods of severe financial and administrative duress.

The 299-seat John E. Allen Jr. Theatre, now Freedom’s mainstage performing space, was reportedly plagued by mismanagement and subject to prohibitive city ordinances due to its location inside a historic home. Construction began in 1995, but the Allen Theatre did not open its doors until 2001. In that single year, Freedom’s staff plunged from 52 to 5—the same year it was nominated for multiple Barrymore Awards. Shows were cancelled due to lack of resources. The theatre limped along, burdened by millions of dollars of debt, for well over a decade.

But as the surrounding neighborhood has begun to revitalize, so, it would appear, has Freedom.Osteria, one of the nation’s most critically acclaimed Italian restaurants, opened its doors in 2007 just two blocks away. The Divine Lorraine, a turn-of-the-century hotel famously abandoned for several decades, is undergoing a much-publicized conversion into luxury condominiums. And Freedom is excitedly announcing its 50th anniversary season, celebrating with a production ofDreamgirls and a gala fundraiser.

Of course, depending on whom you ask, the rapid gentrification of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is either a godsend or a deep injustice. And depending on whom you ask, Sandra Haughton is either the unsung savior of an important black cultural institution or the harbinger of its destruction.

Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Sandra Haughton of New Freedom Theatre.
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and Sandra Haughton of New Freedom Theatre.

Since the appointment of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj as interim guest artistic director, following the departure of Ozzie Jones in 2015, the theatre has garnered newfound critical acclaim. Freedom has begun to market to a new audience of mainstream white theatregoers and has been an active participant in the Barrymore Award process, eligibility for which mandates that cast, crew, and directors are paid a base minimum salary. The theatre is no longer mired in debt, and is celebrating its recent Barrymore nomination for the Victory Foundation Award for Outstanding Theatre Education Program—though it’s a bittersweet nod, as it was bestowed upon the theatre education programming pioneered and run for decades by Patricia Scott Hobbs. After Hobbs’s dismissal, Haughton cancelled the summer classes due to “low enrollment,” though she says new educational programming is underway.

What everyone can agree on is that the mission of Freedom—to provide an artistic space for black artists, and a safe space to grow and teach black children—is critically needed, now more than ever. And while some have cited the seeming cruelty of firing three beloved longtime employees just months before the theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration, Haughton defends it as a critically necessary step to ensure the organization’s survival.

“Of the 57 black theatres that were founded when Freedom Theatre was founded, only 5 survive, and we are one of them,” Haughton says. “It is never easy to make change in an institution. Never. We went through every department, we looked at what was working, and we looked at what wasn’t working. And if you combine founder’s syndrome and entitlement—well, that’s what we had to work with. And we have to figure out a way for the theatre to grow.”

Haughton pauses briefly before adding, “The other thing is, I think about the protestors, and the people who are expressing all of this concern, and I’m thinking ‘Well, where were they all those times when the theatre was in trouble?’ If I compare their names to the list on my donor list, there wouldn’t be many of them on it.”

 

Philadelphia is a city of rich, thorny, sometimes ironic history. Edwin Forrest, a white actor once known as the greatest Shakespearean actor in America, was most renowned for his blackface portrayal of Othello. In what was once his parlor, 170 years later, Lary Moten was handcuffed for reasons he still cannot explain. And just outside of those parlor windows, angry alumni gather to grieve the loss of a space that once felt like their own.

“Hundreds of people over 50 years built this theatre, not only the people who are angry right now,” says Haughton. “I think it’s disingenuous for a small group of people to say that this is their theatre. Because it doesn’t belong to them.”

Nor, counter the protestors, does it belong to Haughton. As they point out, a national historic landmark is open to the public, and accordingly the public has a right to know what happens behind closed doors. All who have loved this theatre have some right to its legacy. And while that legacy is explicitly rooted in black racial and cultural identity, activists are quick to point out the ways in which the complexities of Freedom’s story both acknowledge as well as transcend that label. Is this a story about a black woman using law enforcement to defend her turf during a time of widespread unrest in the policing of black communities? That’s one way to see it. But it’s also the story of institutional stagnation and internal politics endemic to many artistic communities, regardless of race.

“It’s bigger than her,” says Ozzie Jones. “This is a larger problem in the arts than just the issue of Sandra’s personality. We start to develop relationships with institutions and their funding sources, and we stop asking questions. It can enable bad behavior and greed in positions of leadership. It’s why public schools are failing—you start to dig a little bit, and realize that what is happening at Freedom is just indicative of what happens at institutions that deal with people of color and the poor all the time. And that, to me, is a bigger conversation than Sandra Haughton.”

An open letter to the community from New Freedom’s board chair, Derek Hargreaves, details the protocols that were followed in the dismissal of the legacy employees, and maintains that the board has “complete faith and confidence” in Sandra Haughton, an award-winning and seasoned professional.

Haughton has, at the time of this publication, not responded to a request for a complete list of board members in good standing. The website of New Freedom lists only three members, the minimum requirement. Haughton says that “for a number of reasons, we’ve kept the board small, in order to get things accomplished,” but declined to comment due to “pending legal matters” whether or not Joyce Ojo Allen, one of the three names listed on the website, is a current board member. (Allen, the widow of founder John Allen, who has not returned a request for comment on this story, was reportedly barred from entering the building by security detail and local police earlier last week).

So, then, to whom does Freedom belong? To those who worked without pay to keep the electricity on, or to those who tried desperately to grow an unwilling institution toward a new future? To those who remember the teacher that changed their life? To those who were those teachers? Does it belong to anyone who has ever worked, laughed, loved, or mourned within its walls, or only to those who have worked the hardest to keep the doors open?

“You can’t own Freedom,” reads Ijames’ letter. “Freedom is inalienable. Freedom is open.”

August Wilson said it differently: “Freedom is heavy. You gotta put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back holds up.”