by Bernice Elizabeth Green
Last week, “Billie” of Bedford-Stuyvesant was recognized nationally, in the company of greats like Gladys Knight, for her “impact and continued commitment to telling Black stories and redefining the arts community in New York.” She took center stage when President Biden honored her at the White House with a National Medal of Arts. Blondel Pinnock, President & CEO of Restoration Corporation, the Billie Holiday Theatre’s birth home for 50 years.
When we learned of this high accolade for the theater that’s launched a thousand actors (including Oscar-honored Sam Jackson and Denzel Washington, and others), we could not help but applaud, in addition to Restoration newcomer Pinnock, community-based leading ladies who have ushered the theater to this moment … a long way from the times when she was an Off Broadway “featured player”, off the circuit.
In honoring The Billie Holiday Theater, The White House also honors Marjorie Moon, Indirah Etwaroo, Antonia Yuille, Laurie Cumbo and other community-based cultural-arts visionary women. So it was such a pleasant surprise, when the comments of those women were included in Restoration’s official press release.
“For 50 years, The Billie has served as a mecca for bold and daring artists and audiences to come together in a rigorous artistic space that tackles racial injustices, presents new and unapologetic voices, and imagines a world where all people can flourish. Under consistent strong leadership, The Billie has been able to maintain its role as a beacon of its community from Herbert Scott-Gibson to Marjorie Moon to Dr. Indira Etwaroo. In this moment, we also have to acknowledge the visionary leaders over the last five decades who all picked up the mantle to steer and lead this incredibly important institution to this point,” Toni Yuille Williams, Chair, The Billie Holiday Theatre Board,” said in response to the award. “We are deeply encouraged and honored by the Administration’s and NEA’s unwavering belief in the power of the arts to make a positive difference in the world.”
“The Billie Holiday Theater has served as a bastion of Black art, creativity, and culture for more than 50 years. It has helped launch the careers of countless Black creatives who may not have received that opportunity elsewhere. This recognition by President Biden and the National Arts Endowment is a powerful affirmation of Restoration’s long-standing leadership as a talent incubator just as it embarks on a sweeping expansion to make its programming more accessible to Brooklynites and New Yorkers alike,” shared Laurie Cumbo, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York.
Dr. Indira Etwaroo, Executive Artistic Director Emeritus, The Billie Holiday Theatre, said: “The intersecting pandemics of COVID-19 and ongoing racial injustices in 2020 defined the most consequential moment in modern history. The Billie Holiday Theatre stood on the front lines of the fight against long-standing systemic racism with the largest African American community in the nation – Central Brooklyn – disproportionately impacted by both pandemics and our rallying cry was the arts, a cry heard across the nation and the world,” said . “To lead an institution of extraordinary people, to galvanize a group of committed artists and community members, and to collectively use the arts to condemn racial injustice with a sense of urgency and humanity in 2020 is what this particular National Medal of the Arts embodies.”
And the grand dame of theater, Marjorie Moon, Executive Director Emeritus, The Billie Holiday Theatre lauded the “recognition by President Biden and the National Endowment for the Arts as a major affirmation of “The Billie’s legacy as a stalwart for Black creativity and expression over the last 50 years.”
Ms. Moon also said, “During my 40-year tenure as its Executive Director, my goal was to take The Billie to a place of growth from an ambitious community-led project into our nation’s premier hub for Black talent. To see our early vision come to fruition is one of my proudest moments. The Billie is the heart of Bed-Stuy and I am so thrilled that it is receiving the nation’s highest honor in the arts at the People’s House in Washington D.C.,” said Marjorie Moon, Executive Director Emeritus, The Billie Holiday Theatre.
Ms. Pinnock’s comments reminded that The Billie is on the verge of another dramatic milestone: “The award comes at an auspicious moment as Restoration prepares for a dramatic transformation including the expansion and reimagining of The Billie to serve as a 21st century hub for the next generation.”
The Billie is currently celebrating its milestone 50th anniversary with a special Anniversary Season throughout 2023. The season pays homage to five decades of excellence presented from The Billie’s iconic stage while also spotlighting the institution’s future and its continued commitment to telling Black stories. Restoration’s recently unveiled plans to reimagine its longtime home as the Restoration Innovation Campus, a global hub dedicated to closing Brooklyn’s racial wealth gap, including increasing Black workers’ access to jobs in creative industries. Designed by renowned architect Sir David Adjaye, the campus will include a major expansion of the theater, designed to host a wide-ranging mix of performances and support Brooklyn’s next generation of creative leaders.