Crown Heights: The Show Goes on at an Iconic Theater, Despite Ownership Issues

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Although the ownership of Nostrand Avenue’s Black Lady Theater is unclear, Clarence and Omar Hardy believe it belongs to them and are operating it accordingly

“You in the right place,” says Clarence Hardy, 83, from inside the box office of the Black Lady Theater. He is speaking to a woman who has wandered in from Nostrand Avenue. She peruses the glossy flyers in the lobby—for an upcoming play, slam poetry readings, a monthly “Jazz & Sip And Paint” event, and holistic healing presentations.

Although the ownership of the theater is in dispute, Clarence and his son, Omar, believe they are the rightful owners of the 11,183-square-foot, three-story building, and they are operating it accordingly.

“You guys are here to stay, right?,” the woman asks.

“We’re not going nowhere,” Clarence says.

Six months ago, the theater opened its doors for the first time since the 90s, when it belonged to the late Judge John L. Phillips Jr.. “I didn’t know that it was here,” says Atasha Johnson-Harris, a Crown Heights local who regularly drove past the shuttered building. Last year, the Hardys started extensively renovating the Black Lady, removing more than 500 water damaged seats and four dumpsters worth of trash from the building. They also refurbished the theater’s street frontage, which now features floor-to-ceiling glass panels and two sets of large glass doors.

Their effort seems to be appreciated by the Crown Heights community. “This here is a great transformation from what it used to be,” says Walete Eysus, who believes that its reopening is good for the neighborhood. Similarly, Johnson-Harris says that the theater is important for Crown Heights because “it keeps some sort of culture in the place.” She is encouraging her friends to come by as they drive through Nostrand Avenue. Her husband, Marvin Harris, agrees and adds that a reopening event held at the theater earlier this year was “beautiful.”

Although Phillips died in 2008, his legacy is writ large in the Black Lady Theater. Also known as “the kung fu judge” because of his black belt in the martial art, he served as a Civil Court judge from 1977 until his retirement at 70, in 1994. Phillips was a long-term resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant and, according to The New York Times, accumulated properties throughout the area, including the Black Lady Theater and its sister theater, the now demolished ‘Slave Theater’, with a total worth of about $10 million.

In their heyday, Phillips’s theaters served as hubs for the area’s African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities. In 2007, Phillips told The New York Times that he named the theater Slave “so that no one would ever forget … what we, as black people, have gone through.” Similarly the Black Lady Theater was named to acknowledge the sacrifices and contribution of black women. Following racially motivated killings in Queens in the 1980s, the theaters—in particular the Slave—played host to important civil rights press conferences and rallies.

Clarence Hardy met Phillips in the mid 90s, when he was a tenant in one of the judge’s buildings in Crown Heights. He became a building manager for Phillips, he says, and they eventually became friends and business partners. “Whenever he had a problem, he called me. I was right there.” According to Hardy, later in his life Phillips told him that the theaters belonged to him, and in 1999, the deeds of both theaters were transferred to a company in which Hardy has an interest.

But, the following year, the judge became the subject of a guardianship proceeding after a District Attorney investigation found that he had been financially exploited while suffering from Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Eventually, courts ruled that he was incapacitated when he transferred the theaters and they were returned to Phillips’s estate.

Phillips’s fortune was then mishandled by a succession of guardians and attorneys (two of whom have been found guilty of stealing hundreds and thousands of dollars from his estate)—a saga covered comprehensively by the media, including this publication. Almost all of his properties, including the Slave Theater, were sold to cover millions in unpaid taxes. He died in a nursing home in 2008, as The New York Times reported, “broke and in debt.” Clarence says he remained close with his friend until the end and that the judge died in his arms.

Today, the Black Lady Theater’s ownership is extremely unclear. Clarence Hardy was unsuccessful in challenging his eviction from the Slave Theater in 2011, in a dispute with Samuel Boykin, Phillips’s nephew and a former administrator of the Phillips estate. Hardy is listed as the owner of the building in work permits for this year’s renovation. Yet in the most recent Property Tax Bill for the theater, the property is listed under the name of a man who has been dead for nine years: “John Phillips.”

This May, according to the New York tax lien Ombudsman Office, the City sold a lien on the Black Lady Theater because of unpaid property taxes and other municipal charges. As of this August, nearly $20,000 is owed to New York City. If an agreement is not entered into by the property owner within 12 months to begin repayment of these debts, formal foreclosure proceedings can begin in court.

The Hardys are aware of the tangle surrounding the property’s ownership, and remain steadfast in their conviction that they are the theater’s rightful owners. They say that Phillips was lucid when he transferred the property to their company, and were arrested several times for trespassing while protesting the demolition of the Slave Theater. The father and son have also been at the forefront of community efforts, including fundraising and petitioning the Kings County DA and City Council members, to keep the theaters in their hands, for their original purpose.

“We are getting ourselves in a position, to a position where we can pay our lawyer,” Omar says, pointing out that they are trying to generate income from the Black Lady Theater now that it has been reopened. “We don’t have anything to be worried about.”

For now, they say, they are operating the theater on a shoestring budget. Beyond the Black Lady’s lobby, it is clear that the building’s transformation is still underway. To the right of the entrance to the stage sits a small pile of building materials, including ceramic tile adhesive and a paint brush. Written on the wall above this in chalk is a construction to-do-list. Omar Hardy says they hire a contractor when they can afford it.

Members of the skeletal theater staff support themselves financially with other jobs, “They sacrifice because they see the bigger goal,” Omar says. Sherese Parris, 27, the theater’s Artistic Director, says she has sought out multiple streams of income—including acting, marketing for a children’s clothing retail store, and running a T-shirt line with her sisters.

Parris says one of the reasons she decided to remain involved with the Black Lady after she directed a play there earlier this year was because of its “rich history.” The theater still contains many hand-painted murals of African women and the African-diaspora from its heyday, and its legacy continues to drive its current occupants. Omar Hardy says it is important for people of African descent to have a base and that he hopes to provide a sense of hope and empowerment to his community. “I’m blessed. There’s something spiritual going on here,” Clarence Hardy adds. The theater has two plays in production, including Whistle in Mississippi: The Lynching of Emmet Till.

If the Hardys successfully maintain ownership of the Black Lady Theater, she’ll certainly be busy. This upcoming season, the theater will host a writing workshop, through which inexperienced writers from Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy will be paired with directors and actors to bring their works to life. Parris says that it is important for untold stories to be heard, and for the theater to be accessible. She is also planning to create partnerships with local schools to enable local students to watch the theater’s plays. In terms of the renovation, Omar Hardy has wishes for a rooftop garden, and to install solar panels and aquaponics.

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