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Header: Melissa Reinard, Brittany Ogle and Noel Anthony in Guys & Dolls at AMTSJ. Photo by David Allen.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Digs in Its Heels
by Sam Hurwitt

This June the arts community went into crisis mode with the news that the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre was being kicked out of the former YWCA at 620 Sutter Street that it has occupied since 1988. What's more, San Francisco's oldest and most established African American theatre company was being displaced by another arts organization, the Academy of Art University, which has used the building as a dormitory since 2005 and is currently in the process of buying it. The Lorraine Hansberry's lease was to expire at the end of July, and the academy expected the company to vacate the space by then.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre immediately mobilized supporters for an all-out campaign to save the theatre. Links on the company's web site provided quick e-mail links to Mayor Gavin Newsom and each member of the city's Board of Supervisors, as well as mailing addresses for Academy of Art president Elisa Stephens and various legislators. The theatre counts up to 1,300 e-mails sent from its site as well as unknown numbers of cards and letters. The heads of the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Symphony, SFMOMA and other major institutions sent a joint letter urging the mayor to take action.

On June 26 San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed a resolution "supporting the Lorraine Hansberry and its contributions to the cultural life of San Francisco and its Theater District" with a unanimous vote of all 10 members present.

A June 23 San Francisco Chronicle story by Robert Hurwitt (this reporter's father) laid out the situation as the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre explained it, with Stephens unavailable for comment.

Then the plot thickened. Responding to what it characterized as certain misrepresentations, the academy broke its silence for a June 27 follow-up by the Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin. Stephens revealed that in 2005 the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre had signed away its option to renew its lease, having been told that its current owner Sutter Taylor planned to gut the building and convert it into condos, which would make it impossible for the theatre to remain in its current location. As partial recompense, the Lorraine Hansberry received two years of free rent.

At the time Sutter Taylor had only just bought the building from the YWCA, the original owner of the landmark 1917 structure by architect Louis Hobart, who also designed Grace Cathedral and the Marines Memorial right across the street from the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. When the YWCA welcomed the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in 1987 as part of a citywide initiative to find homes for companies such as the Eureka and the Asian American Theatre Company, it became the first African American theatre company in the theatre district off Union Square. But a few years ago master tenant Sheehan Hotel began to fail, sparking a series of transactions that led to the development firm Sutter Taylor taking over the master lease and then buying the building from the YWCA in 2005. Its renegotiation with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre followed soon after.

No sooner had the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre given up another decade's worth of renewal options, however, than it turned out that Sutter Taylor wasn't going to transform the space after all, and instead would be selling the building to the Academy of Art. Within a few months the hotel was out and academy students were in, turning the building into a dormitory. The academy is leasing the building while the sale remains in escrow, but Stephens insists that it does not hold a master lease on the building and consequently has no contractual relationship with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, whose lease is with Sutter Taylor.

Stephens writes in an e-mail to Theatre Bay Area: "Because the academy is not a party to the theatre's lease agreement, there have been no negotiations, but there have been discussions between the academy and the management of the Hansberry about assisting the theatre." She continues, "The Academy of Art has done everything possible to help the theatre, even though the group has known for two years that their lease expires July 31."

The theatre insists that there was no such understanding because it's been getting the runaround ever since.

"The current owners informed us that their plans had changed, and they said please try to contact the art academy," says the theatre's founding executive director Quentin Easter. "We immediately contacted them. They told us, 'No, there's nothing we can do. Please deal with your current owner.' The current owner said, 'We are supportive of working with you, but we have to have the art academy sign off on it.' We tried from then on to communicate with them, with no success. Not that they told us no, not that they said we need to be moving--nothing. There was no communication of any kind."

After two years of unreturned calls and letters, founding artistic director Stanley E. Williams finally enlisted the help of a mutual friend to arrange a meeting with Stephens. That meeting on June 5 was when he and Easter learned that not only did the Academy of Art expect them to be gone by July 31, but it was planning to turn the theatre space back into a gym for its students.

"There was no reason why the meeting we had June 5, 2007 couldn't have happened in 2005," Easter says. "Of course we were flabbergasted at that point, because this was all news to us."

With less than two months remaining, the Lorraine Hansberry organized its whirlwind letter-writing campaign and started talking to the press. As public pressure escalated, the academy expressed its willingness to help the theatre relocate.

"The academy has provided its real estate agency to help the Hansberry find a new home in the Union Square area and it is our understanding that the theatre has a letter of intent for a new home for the group," Stephens writes. "Additionally, the academy has offered some financial assistance to help the group move to this new location by the 31st of July."

"They've showed us some spaces," Easter responds. "Two of them are existing theatre spaces that have a price tag that's simply not affordable. There's not any letter of intent of any kind. There have just been informal discussions that have not been very encouraging at this point. Even if we're able to identify a space and get it prepared, it's going to take at least a year. It's not something we can move into tomorrow."

The tension is palpable in the Hansberry's rehearsal room. Williams is on edge, wanting to protest the theatre's treatment in no uncertain terms, while Easter wearily tries to keep things positive, wary of making any statements that could throw a wrench in the negotiations.

"I think that 25 years of hard work and dedication and sacrifice for this city have earned me the right to be able to sit down in a business meeting with this art academy when it determines my fate," says Williams of the company he cofounded in 1980. "I deserve your respect. I'm standing straight up and proud and saying, This is what I bring to the table."

The Academy of Art University was founded on Kearny Street in 1929 as a small design school by Sierra Magazine creative director Richard S. Stephens. After his son Richard A. Stephens took over in the '50s, the academy grew from 50 students to more than 5,000. Now it's become the largest private art school in the country, with about 9,000 students. Elisa Stephens, the founder's granddaughter, took over as president in 1992.

When you walk out from under the Academy of Art awning over the entrance to the Lorraine Hansberry space, now called the Clara Gil Stephens Building after the academy founder's wife, you can see identical logos across the street at 625 and 655 Sutter, then others up the block at 680-688 Sutter and two more on the 800 block. Still more buildings have been converted into student housing on Powell, Jones, Pine, Octavia, Jackson and two each on Bush and Van Ness. The academy boasts 27 centrally located buildings, with classrooms on Townsend, Federal, Bush, Powell, Washington, Stockton and New Montgomery streets. In a very real way, downtown has become its campus.

"The art academy has been a growing and growing and growing presence on this city, but it's now reaching the point where its impact on the city is now being noticed," says Easter. "So it's an opportunity for them now to be a good citizen."

"One of the reasons we sought this building was to use existing gymnasium space to help us qualify for the NCAA and bring physical fitness opportunities to the academy students," says academy director of athletics Jamie Williams in a prepared statement. "Our students shouldn't be penalized because the theatre--which has known for two years that they must move--has failed to properly plan and comply with its agreement to move."

"We checked on the NCAA web site," says Easter, "and as we understand it the space isn't physically big enough to meet their minimum requirements. I don't think they've gotten to the point of even measuring inside the theatre space to find out that it's a multipurpose room that had a basketball hoop in it at one point."

For its part, the Lorraine Hansberry doesn't see why it couldn't just stay on with the students. In the two years they've coexisted in the space, Academy of Art students have performed in the company's plays and availed themselves of the theatre's resources for student projects.

"The building lends itself to multiple uses," says Easter. "There were actually a dozen businesses here at its height. Now, all of a sudden, nothing can happen but the art academy."

"Frankly, coexistence has never been on the table," Stephens replies. "The gym space is essential for the athletic programs of our students. The theatre promised, in writing to the current owner, that they would depart the building on July 31. That is their deadline and all parties should expect that they will honor their word and contract."

The irony remains that even if the Lorraine Hansberry finds a new home, a perfectly good midsize performance space will be demolished in a city that has far too few of them already.

"We had to dot every i and cross every t because they didn't trust us to know how to do anything as an African American business," says Easter of the initial $500,000 construction project to build the space. "But the blessing is, when we had the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, less than a year after we opened our doors to this new space, our theatre suffered $0 damage. Every light stayed in place. When the earth shook, people came to us to do their shows."

Between Lorraine Hansberry productions, the 300-seat venue has been made available to a variety of outside productions. American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Rep, the Medea Project and the San Francisco Mime Troupe have all staged plays there at one time. As all this was going on in July it was hosting the play 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter's Night.

What the theatre should be doing right now is raising money and building audiences for the upcoming season, scheduled to start October 11 with an adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Instead it's occupied with trying to make sure that it has somewhere to carry out the season.

"Perhaps it's time for something better for the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre," says Williams. "Whatever that is, it will benefit the entire Bay Area theatre community. What we need to be able to do is make sure that we can rise to the occasion and seize the opportunity."

Sam Hurwitt is the theatre critic for the East Bay Express and a regular theatre contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle´┐Żs Pink Pages.