During the golden era of black theatre in America Flint gave birth to a community jewel.
The decade that followed the civil rights movement and its racial, social, and political conflicts saw a generation of writers, painters, choreographers and cultural activists emerge, eager to assert their identity through self-expression. Black artists in Flint shared the vision. A venue that embraced them was the McCree Theatre.
Formed in 1970 and named in honor of the city’s former mayor, Floyd McCree, the center became a haven for creative energy. Decades later, the McCree Theatre is enjoying a resurrection, while striving to maintain the community support and resources that will keep its doors open for years to come.
“One of the things people said they needed was a cultural arts center,” says Charles Winfrey, McCree’ executive director.
The black community’s call for a creative and performing outlet was supported by the diversity policies of President Lyndon Johnson, resulting in a Genesee County Model Cities initiative that helped sponsor the McCree. With assistance from Mott Community College, the stage was set – literally.
McCree Theatre became a training ground for multidisciplinary art programs and hosted live productions of popular black-experience works like Purlie and Five on the Black Hand Side. Both aspiring performers and lovers of the arts soon discovered a place that welcomed them in ways they hadn’t previously felt welcome.
Then a young graduate of University of Michigan-Flint, Winfrey left the city to attend law school, but he returned when his daughter became ill. Having made the black experience his academic focus, he jumped at the chance to fill the McCree’s position of cultural heritage director in 1976.
While the landscape of independently operated cultural arts venues has become increasingly barren in urban cities Winfrey and the McCree Theatre’s supporters remain dedicated to their mission
“That was right up my alley,” he says. “It fit my background.”
Winfrey taught creative writing courses at the venue, then housed on Stewart Street at what’s now the site of a soup kitchen. But after a series of relocations and challenges in funding, the McCree closed its doors in 1987.
Fortunately for supporters of the McCree, closed doors don’t erase legacies.
Broadway performer Bruce Bradley and actress Sheila Miller Graham are among McCree alumni who have continued contributing to the Flint arts community.
In 2004 Winfrey wrote Christmas at the Crossroads, a musical for his church. Inspired by the “stellar production,” he says he sought out McCree alumni including the music director, stage manager, and artistic director. Having maintained the theatre’s non-profit status, they set out to reopen the venue.
Meanwhile, “the stars aligned” and a Genesee County program emerged in support of launching a black arts initiative in North Flint, Winfrey says.
After its team formed a new board of directors and created a plan the center’s doors reopened with “Christmas at the Crossroads” as its first production. In the 14 years since, McCree has taken up its original charge “of educating and enlightening the community,” he says.
Now located at 2040 West Carpenter in the New Standard Building, the theatre’s programming consists of documentary film screenings and live performances like those it hosted in the early days. In a complementary role as playwright, Winfrey helps out with programming. Two one-act shows, Day of Absence and Happy Ending, will be performed at the venue Wednesday, Feb. 21.
The McCree has also created a theatrical production called Graffiti Chronicles that is available to elementary school students. The highly-charged, extremely energetic show is aimed at violence prevention.
“Prevention needs to occur at an early age, preferably before age 10,” according to Netwellness, a program of Case Western Reserve University, which McCree quotes on its website. “Behavior patterns become established and intervention becomes the goal beyond this age.”
McCree says “Graffiti Chronicles” is especially effective because it uses various on-stage scenarios that show what happens when individuals are faced with similar situations in real-life and they are already equipped with the knowledge and tools to overcome those barriers.
“Trained actors use challenging and highly charged theatre to simulate authentic real-life scenarios, featuring familiar situations and easily recognizable characters,” McCree says. “Graffiti Chronicle’s follow-up measures serve to strengthen and reinforce those initial impressions.”
Donation is usually $1.00 per student, if affordable. If you’re interested please call 810-787-2200 for schedule information.
While the landscape of independently operated cultural arts venues has become increasingly barren in urban cities Winfrey and the McCree Theatre’s supporters remain dedicated to their mission. Broadway and off-Broadway performer Bruce Bradley and actress Sheila Miller Graham are among McCree alumni who have continued contributing to the Flint arts community.
Continued success, McCree says, will require ongoing funding support, but will also require the help of black arts patrons to prove the venue’s relevance in 2018 and beyond. Non-profits face common struggles around budget and management, but small, arts venues are tasked with attracting bodies.
“We definitely need to tangibly demonstrate that we are needed and that we are wanted by our own community,” Winfrey says.
To buy tickets to Day of Absence and Happy Ending, or for additional information about the McCree Theatre, visit http://www.thenewmccreetheatre.com/tickets.htmlor call (810) 787-2200.