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Brooklyn’s Billie Holiday Theatre just won the nation’s most prestigious arts award

Brooklyn’s Billie Holiday Theatre just won the nation's most prestigious arts award

Describing the venue as “an incredible place” that is “nurturing a new generation of Black playwrights, performers,” President Joe Biden awarded Bed-Stuy’s Billie Holiday Theatre with the National Medal of Arts in a ceremony late last month. The accolade is the nation’s highest honor awarded to artists and organizations by the U.S. government for outstanding contributions to the excellence and growth of the arts.

With the national medal as a catalyst, there’s even more to come from the theater in its next chapter, the organization’s leader Blondel A. Pinnock says.

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The Billie Holiday Theatre was founded 50 years ago in 1972 at the height of the Black Arts movement by Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, of which Pinnock now leads as president and CEO. In the past five decades, it’s promoted the voices of Black artists including  Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen, Tichina Arnold and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney. Rooted in racial justice, the theatre produces, presents and commissions works in theater, dance, music, visual arts and film, along with offering educational programming for all ages. 

The stage at the Billie Holiday Theatre.
Photograph: By Francis Dzikowski | The Billie stage.

“The Billie Holiday Theatre was created as a vehicle for the voice of the community. It was a place where the creatives who lived in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights certain parts of Black Brooklyn could come and they could hone their craft, they could create plays, they could learn and practice their acting skills,” Pinnock tells Time Out. “The Billie Holiday stage itself became the catalyst and the breeding ground for the Black arts culture.”

An artistic jewel for the nation, channeling its namesake’s exploration of freedom and identity.

During the ceremony at the White House, President Biden awarded the medal—golden with a regal purple ribbon—during a star-studded event. While Pinnock received the award on behalf of the organization, she credits the theater’s past leaders including Marjorie Moon, Franklin Thomas and Indira Etwaroo for their work in helping The Billie ascend to this point.

Samuel Jackson in Inacent Black at The Billie, sitting in an upholstered chair next to another actor.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Billie Holiday Theatre | Samuel Jackson in Inacent Black at The Billie

Fellow NYC organizations Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Apollo Theater have received the award in past years. Fellow awardees this year include Mindy Kaling, Bruce Springsteen, Gladys Knight, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Antonio Martorell-Cardona, Vera Wang and The International Association of Blacks in Dance. Here’s the full list of awardees.

“It’s wonderful to have an organization based in Brooklyn, based Bed-Stuy that can stand toe to toe with these other nationally recognized art institutions,” Pinnock says.

Recently, the Billie Holiday Theatre staged Moments of Black Genius in the American Theater, hosted journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for a Women’s History Month event and brought actress Sheryl Lee Ralph to the stage for a speech. Looking ahead, The Billie will collaborate with 651 Arts to showcase musical performances in May and stage a production of Fabulation next year in collaboration with playwright Lynn Nottage.

Several musicians and performers stand in phone booth-sized stages.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Billie Holiday Theatre

The Billie will be a pivotal center of renovations to the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s Bed-Stuy campus over the next several years. The campus will be taken to grade level, eliminating steps to help with accessibility. Plus, leaders are talking about adding a genealogy center, black box theaters, studios for podcast creation and a training program for those interested in theater set design professions. They want to spotlight the theater, dance, studios and art galleries, bringing these internal spaces more external. The renovated campus is designed as a global hub dedicated to closing Brooklyn’s racial wealth gap, including increasing Black workers’ access to jobs in creative industries.

The Black Lives Matter street mural, which The Billie was a part of developing.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Billie Holiday Theatre | The Black Lives Matter street mural, which The Billie was a part of developing.

“Our goal in listening to the community is that they want to see arts and culture be the center of this,” Pinnock explains. “They want to see that when you walk on Fulton, you see, ‘that’s the arts and culture building, that’s where The Billie is, that’s where all the dance studios are, that’s where our theater program is, that’s where the art gallery is.'”

Of course, they’ll also find a place to proudly display their new national medal.

“We have to figure out a way to let this community know about this greatness that exists right here in the heart of Brooklyn,” Pinnock says. “This type of genius exists right here; you don’t have to go to Manhattan, you don’t have go to other places. We have this right here that passes through our buildings and through our neighborhoods every single day.”

The award presentation in Washington, D.C. echoed that sentiment describing the theater as “an artistic jewel for the nation, channeling its namesake’s exploration of freedom and identity.”

* This article was originally published here