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The Woman Behind The National Black Theatre

For Sade Lythcott, being CEO of the National Black Theatre is a 24/7 job. When her mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, passed away in 2008, Sade was left with the structures of the organization her mother had founded and little guidance on how to build on it. What started as a temporary role as the new CEO of the NBT, eventually paved the way to discovering her “passion and life’s calling running [the] institution.” For Sade, who started her career in fashion, running NBT was never in her plan, however, by the unpredictable hand of life, she was ultimately dealt the perfect deck of cards for herself. 

Milk stopped by NBT to visit the foundation that was home to some of the most influential artists of the past century, including Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Despite its revered reputation, the space itself welcomed us with an air of approachability and warmth. After our initial greeting in the exhibition area, Sade brought us into the brightly lit theatre. There, we spoke with her about heritage, her mother’s legacy, and the importance of community within artistic spaces.

Tell us about your background! I know your mom started this theater, so did you grow up in a very theatrical home environment? 

My name is Sade Lythcott. I’m the CEO of the National Black theatre, which was founded in 1968 by my mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. I took it over in 2008 after she passed away, and have been running it ever since. Growing up was a very cool, artsy environment. It was very theatrical in the sense that my mom was really a visionary when it came to a lot of different kinds of modalities, in terms of cultural parity, racial justice, gender equity etc. When she had my brother, it was around the same time the company of actors, who she called Liberators, also had children, and she wanted to create a culturally sensitive and empowering environment for us to grow up in. So she created a school and we were homeschooled in the theater. This actual building was my first classroom. And we were in that school until first grade for me, and third grade for my brother, by the time we left, we were incredible spirits and performers; maybe not the best at math, but we were incredible stewards of our community, because those are the kinds of things that were implanted. 

So it was kind of a wild childhood. We performed from a very young age. We traveled with our performances and toured the country with all of the company and the company’s children. There was this crazy bus company called the Gray Rabbit and we drove from Harlem to Seattle, performing along the way, and it was a really good, beautiful childhood. I would also say that my mom, as much as she was an visionary artist, her first love and commitment was to teaching. And the theater really came out of a deep desire to be able to serve her community in teaching young African American performers and artists an artistic technology that empowered them from an accuracy of their cultural roots. So many wonderful actors and performers came out of my mom’s class first in the early 60’s in Chelsea with her partner Robert Hooks called The Group Theater Workshop and then up in Harlem at NBT. 

I remember, as a child, that she always prioritized self-care. She would have these self-care ‘goddess woman’s’ circles in our home. She built a spa in our basement on Tuesday evenings our home would be teaming with her girlfriends and women who she taught and mentored. My house was always filled with creatives, intellectuals, and writers. Later, we would know them as historic or famous figures like Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Betty Shabazz, Max Roach, Amiri Baraka, Ruby Dee, Ossis Davis and James Baldwin, but growing up it’s just this wild cadre of aunties and uncles. 

What are some changes you noticed within Harlem from when you were growing up till now? Obviously in the wake of gentrification, there’s a lot to be said, but what about the local community and the art scene there? 

I’ve seen Harlem through the 70s, 80s, and 90s whoo, Lord, probably should stop there. And of course, New York has undergone so many changes. I often joke with my brother that Harlem, growing up, was this incredible black community where you knew your neighbors and on hot summer days you played in the street with the fire hydrant and when I think about today. If a fire hydrant was just spewing water into the street for any given reason, someone would call the fire department. Winters were filled with burning trash cans for people to stay warm. I can’t imagine if something was on fire in the city now! There are certain shifts and changes that the city of New York has undergone. New York had this character that no longer exists. Harlem has definitely undergone changes. But I don’t know an area on the island that hasn’t undergone some push and pull of gentrification–and I think that there are pros and cons to it. 

Having more resources locally to where you really feel like you don’t have to leave your community in order to get basic services is a pro. A con is that many of the big box stores have forced small mom and pop businesses who have faithfully served our community to close. This equates to much Black-owned business. I remember when the first Duane Reade opened up in the 2000s. Like those kinds of things are welcomed (by some), But seeing the legendary Small’s paradise turn into an IHOP and Lennox Lounge into a Wells Fargo is heartbreaking.  Obviously, the overarching headline around gentrification is this erasure of cultural identity–the pushing out of people who have called Harlem their home for multiple generations that’s been devastating. Especially when we all remember in a not so distant past the fact that taxies wouldn’t pick us up or go this far uptown. The cultural appropriation of Harlem, from a community to a brand, has hit hard and lots of spaces. But on the other side of that, the recognition of Harlem’s cultural richness has brought a lot of opportunities as well. 

I think the shifting of demographics in the neighborhood has created potential new audiences for us. And I think as cultural arts institutions and anchors for Harlem, we have really had to take pause and take stock of each other’s contribution. We have had to find sustainable ways to work together. Because it is the unity around our commitment to our cultural and artistic output that has shaped Harlem as a black experience, since the beginning. I find that gentrification is a bit of friction that has lent itself to the cultural arts organization really finding ways to partner and come together to create a more sustainable, unshakable foundation for our institutions. And that part I think is a plus.

Did you know that this was the path you’re gonna take? Did you want to take over the role as CEO of National Black Theatre? Or did you think you were going to go in some other direction and just ended up here?

My professional background always really involved in fashion. My first job ever was in fashion as a trend forecaster primarily working with brands like Levi’s & Strauss. At 15 I was scouted in the park–their designers who liked my style–and I started just making what I thought was a cool buck as a high school student trend forecasting for them, but I didn’t take it seriously. Cut to college, at NYU I thought I wanted to work in the music business. I landed at MTV. And then from that gig at MTV, being an associate producer on TRL, I got scouted by a fashion editor for People Magazine and they were launching a new magazine called Teen People, they offered me my own fashion column in Teen People. So I had a column there doing trend forecasting and DIY style demos. I left MTV thinking I was going to start a production company, but I was taking the advice of my friend who was a stylist, named Wendy Schechter who basically said “Sade while you’re trying to figure out your TV life, why don’t you come assist me?” She was a major stylist and had worked for Annie Liebowitz and Vanity Fair and Vogue, so I cut my teeth as her assistant in styling–and it was something that I was good at. I then partnered with my best friend Giada Lubomirski who was just finishing up at FIT, and we became styling partners. Styling together was always an adventure,  Gaida and I’s last gig was styling and doing wardrobe for Lenny Kravits’ world tour. It was such a beautiful and meaningful rollercoaster ride that we decided we wanted to stay put for a while. Back in NY, Gaida decided to take a job running Milk Studio’s gallery space. While she had that gig, we started a swimwear line together with our other friend Nathalie Bruwer called Lunazul Swimwear. Milk was actually a really huge part of helping us get it off the ground. And I thought that would be my life. I thought my life would be somewhere between styling and designing. 

Then in 2008, I remember being in Miami with the girls at swim week, selling our second collection and I got a call from my mom and had a long conversation with her about some work I was still doing with Lenny. Then the next phone call I got was five in the morning from her assistant and they said she had passed away from a heart attack. Devastated, I went home and quickly tried to find a balance between this company I had just started and my mom’s theater not having a leader any longer. I thought I could do both. The Board of Directors here at NBT asked if I would come on board for six months while they tried to figure out what to do. I guess long story short, I’ve been here 11 years really finding my passion and my life’s calling running this institution. But it was never in the plan.

So your mom’s passing was very sudden. After you took over, how did you keep the memory or the feeling of your mom alive in the space?

I don’t have a theater background, so I’m not one of those proficient theatre-makers. I didn’t start out that way I should say, I actually just started out from the space of preservation of legacy. My mom was my best friend, so what I didn’t know in the craft of theater, I absolutely knew in the vision of the institution. But it was a really harrowing feat to step into such big shoes. The first time I really got who my mom was, was at NYU, where I was taking a theater class, and they taught about her and I was like, “excuse me? Mom?” It was wild I was like, “oh, maybe I should listen to her more.” It was really a legacy moment. She was big and when she passed away, politicians, famous and infamous people came out of the woodwork to pay tribute to her. I remember seeing the announcement of her passing scroll across the CNN screen; it was surreal. I remember trying to plan the memorial and getting a call from Bill Clinton followed by a letter from Bill and Hillary saying what my mother’s presence had meant to them and so it was harrowing, to say the least.  And here I was this fashion chick that was moving back to Harlem to do the incomprehensible.

One of the people who wrote a eulogy for my mom’s funeral was Dr. Maya Angelou and I remember her sending it because she couldn’t travel at the time, but having to hear this incredible testimony of who my mom was…wow.  In part, she wrote “…There is not nor can there be another Barbara Ann Teer and no one can follow her or step in her footprints and fill them” It landed like an epitaph. I mean imagine the Maya Angelou basically saying retire the jersey, cause no one can live up to what she’s accomplished. And here I am, grieving a mother and going into a field that I had never really paid close attention to. I knew the theater as a space that sort of robbed me of time with my mom because she was so married to the work and I remember feeling very inadequate. For the first couple years, I definitely suffered from imposter syndrome like what would Dr. Barbara Ann Teer do? And it was impossible.

It wasn’t actually till my auntie Maya passed away when I revisited her words and they were really right to your question. It was that I can’t be my mother. But what I can do is be the best me and contribute my unique talents and gifts to a legacy and an institution that she created. So in revisiting her words, it gave me the permission to stop trying and do what she did, but to really focus on creating space for the future generation of black artists to feel liberated, safe and sacred in their practice. Spaces, where they could take artistic risks and the community, can see ourselves reflected back in our highest, most magical, creative forms. I knew I could do that really well, so that’s kind of the path that I’ve paved. And then, of course, hiring an incredible team of theatre folks to partner with the vision and mission of the National Black Theatre in producing the kinds of work that we do today all as a tribute the trail blazed by my mom. 

What is the most rewarding part of working in this theatre? 

There are so many rewarding parts I feel so privileged on a daily basis to do the work that I do. The most rewarding part is to see my mom’s hard work, this labor of love, this visionary woman who was way before her time and get to steward that vision into the future. It’s amazing to, over a decade later, hear the best and the brightest, the emerging, the established still say her name because this space since day one has been crafted for their gifts, growth, and creativity. 

NBT has created this new lane of developing work. To produce new work from the page to the stage; thoughts and ideas from young creatives that didn’t exist before our investment, who now have agency, resources and a platform to get their work seen and heard is a gamechanger. That’s wildly rewarding. And also just seeing the impact of these storytellers on the field as a result of our investment and commitment to these young artists is also super rewarding.

What’s been one of your favorite projects you’ve worked on throughout your years here? 

I have so many, it’s like choosing your favorite child, but I will say one of my most rewarding experiences was producing the world premiere run of a show called Lyrics from Lockdown by Bryon Bain. It was a show that National Black theatre world-premiered with Harry Belafonte and Gina Belafonte as the executive producers, which was an exciting moment. But it was also that opportunity where I found Jonathan McCrory, my new artistic director. I asked him to come on board to help with the one product and we’ve been partners in this crazy experiment called NBT ever since–which is going on eight years together. Also, that piece crystallized our contribution to bringing social justice issues to the forefront of art production. So that play was really a play that not only did we champion the art, but we really championed criminal justice reform before anyone was really talking about it. We felt very convicted–no pun intended–at the time. New York State was one of three states that still charged children as adults and we knew the impact of that on our own communities. So we also wanted to be a part of the movement to put pressure on Albany to change that law and to raise the age–which has happened. It really crystallized what our producing model would be moving forward.

Amazing, so as CEO, I guess you kind of run more big picture things. But what is a day to day like?

The day to day for the CEO of the National Black theatre…well, it starts at seven in the morning in terms of work. It’s the only quiet time Jonathan and I have to touch base unencumbered. The rest of my day is a mix of meetings, conference calls, sometimes peppered with speaking engagements and writing deadlines. As we’re in the midst of a major capital redevelopment project that will redevelop the whole city block that we own much of my time is spent juggling that project, with partnership cultivation and logistics and the ever-present fundraising. Often, I’m speaking with elected officials, making sure that we are positioned for the proper amount of funding and resources to support our programmatic, operational and redevelopment projects. Jonathan does an incredible job curating our season. My job from a creative standpoint is just helping to shape the curation of our season in alignment with my mother’s mission for the work that we’re doing. 

What Programs and Features does NBT offer? I feel like it’s more than just a theatrical space. There’s also an exhibition space..what else does the space offer?

For my mom, the theater was kind of a subversive tool to heal our community–it was never about the play. It was always about what the impact of the art, ie the play, could do for our culture. Our tagline should be ‘National Black theatre, doing it for the culture’.

So I’ll say that we have coined something called holistic producing. I wanted to be able to distill all of the different things that National Black theatre has done for the last half-century in a systematic way that could be reproduced every season and what we came up with was something called holistic producing. It really focuses on the playwright and the artist. We pick plays that we want to produce and we don’t ask the playwright to be political or to be an activist. My mom never called the actors ‘actors.’ She called them Liberators, because she wanted them to be in conversation with their own liberation. And in turn, have the audience interact with a liberated person of color which would then inspire them to feel activated in their own lives. To be active citizens in their own participation, in their liberation. That’s kind of the overarching original vision. And so the distillation of that today is holistic producing which is a three-part process. 

So first we pick a play, then second we, as National Black theatre, go into the script and tease out a social justice theme, a conversation that people are having in the streets, when you turn on your TV, when you sit at your coffee shop or dinner table; present pulse issues. What are the things that people are talking about– those themes do they exist in these pieces? So we’ll tease out those themes and then we use our lobby space as an exhibition or a gallery space, where we blow up those themes into dramaturgical lobby exhibits. We interact with different visual artists from the community, different NGOs, and nonprofit organizations, different activists that are champions of these issues. We believe that art belongs to the community, and theater can be such an alienating art form, right? Like the way, people think about opera. But it’s still theater and we’re in the heart of Harlem. So we want to make sure that our community knows that these plays are not really just about the play. They’re about our lives. And they’re about how having difficult conversations can help us in our own lives. So the second part of holistic producing is our dramaturgical lobbies and the conversation that we spark on our digital platforms and social media. We want people to really get that everyone is welcome to have a conversation around not only the art but their own lives. 

And then the third and last part is after every show here at the theater, Jonathan and I host a post-show discussion where we really use our opportunity to create a new form of art. We, along with the cast and usually a representative from one of the activist organizations, or the playwright or director come on stage and we facilitate kind of like a mini Town Hall about the work and the topics, to really hand the play and the experience over to the audience. To have a discussion about how they feel, how they’re digesting all of the things that they’re wrestling with as a result of experiencing this art. And so I would say that’s the totality of the theater experience, but to your point, it’s not just a theater experience. We also have something called our entrepreneurial artist program, which is using our space to empower the community. It’s a space subsidy and space rental, and we donate space to different individual artists, nonprofits, and theaters in the community. We believe that that’s how we combat gentrification, by making sure that our space is always accessible and affordable to the people in the community that need it the most. We want people to feel that no matter what is happening outside of NBT walls, there is always and will always be a home away from home for them. 

Yeah, I noticed that a lot of theaters and fine art institutions really feel ostracizing. Like you’re supposed to feel as if there’s a distance between you and them. But here it feels very comfortable and homey.

 Thank you. That’s really the goal of mine, to welcome everybody into this space–your home away from home. Especially during these crazy times where we are getting more and more removed from our own humanity, whether it’s technology that’s doing it, or legislation, there are fewer and fewer spaces where I think people, in particular people of color, feel safe, seen and sacred. I take that to heart every day and every day I want people from all walks of life to walk into the space and feel good, we may not be the most polished spot–but we’re the spot that’s all heart. So I’m glad you guys felt that way walking in, it means a lot to us. 

We did! So are there any programs or projects that you hope to implement or continue implementing in the future to ensure that the community grows and the word of NBT is spread?

Yeah, so one of the programs that I’m the proudest of are our residency programs. We have a playwright residency program, a producer’s residency program and a director of residency programs and these training programs really identify the next-gen of black theatre-makers and really give them the opportunity to get invaluable, on the job training. Our playwright residency program is the only program in the country dedicated to giving Black playwrights a workshop production of the play they create during their residency. The residency programs will continue and what’s really lovely about the program is that we get to see how the investment in those artists are changing the face of the American Theatre cannon and are a pipeline to diversifying the field. That’s something I’m really passionate about. We’re doing a major redevelopment right now as we’re moving out of this space for almost five years, so we have forged a really beautiful partnership with the Apollo Theater( just down the street), which will be our temporary space. Working with Apollo has been and I think will continue to be very rewarding in terms of our investment in artists. 

In April, we are partnering with Carnegie Hall to create an evening of micro commissions that I’m very excited about. This year Carnegie Hall’s Citywide Festival is based on Beethoven. I remember when they came to us, because we partner with Carnegie Hall every year with their festival, and they were like this year it’s Beethoven. I thought, “okay, National Black theatre…Beethoven…what’s that going to look like?” But we came up with something really beautiful, looking at Beethoven as a masterful artist who had disabilities. We’re curating a beautiful night with New York Public Library for public performance at Lincoln Center of new work by deaf Black artists and artists with disabilities. It’s called “Can and Able the Resilience of the Gift,” really looking at disability from the space of a gift, and how these particular black artists that we’ve commissioned, create work, with their disability, and as an extension of their gift. 

With the Park Avenue Armory, we have created two signature events that celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment, which granted most women the right to vote called 100 years|100 women where we’re commissioning 100 self-identified women to create works in conversation with and interrogating 100 years of the right to vote. The commissions will be revealed/performed in the Drill Hall at the Armory on May 16th. I’m also writing a musical that I’m developing here and with the Apollo called “A Time to Love,” and we’ll do a presentation of that at the Apollo in May as well, which is really cool. 

Amazing, so from the standpoint of a young creative in the city, how would you say they can get involved more?

So I think for young people, my advice always is, well really it’s my mantra in the work that we do here. It’s that instead of pursuing what you love from the space of your own gifts, and talents, ask yourself how your gifts and talents can be of service. And I think that’s the thing about cultural arts institutions–at the heart of what we do, we are in service. We can’t do the work that we are passionate about and called to do without other people joining the movement of service. So as a young person, yes, master your craft, learn and grow, but also find the institutions that make you feel seen. And instead of trying to figure out how to perform on that stage, instead of trying to figure out how to get your play produced, really learn how you can help be an active member of their community. And I think through that learning process of service, it will richly inform and create opportunities for you to not only see the world and the work differently, and to have your things considered and produced, but you’ll also get a greater sense of who your community is, and the value that your gifts and talents bring to it. So volunteer, intern, be of service to the spaces that inspire you. Learning more about these spaces, actually is very informative and inspirational to your process.

Special thanks to the National Black Museum.

Stay tuned to Milk for more NYC Features.

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