*’The Circle’ a poem heard in the video above which pays homage to some of a multitude of performers who have passed through the doors of the house that ‘Jack’ built (pictured is Adolph Caesar from ‘A Soldier’s Story’) was written by the award-winning playwright and founder of Inner City Cultural Center, C. Bernard Jackson (aka ‘Jack’). The poem/video seemed like the perfect way to begin this journey, and let readers inside as Jack’s vision turned reality embarks on its “50 Years” celebration — the second of a three-year-event — on November 4, 2016.
Few, if any, creative organizations can even come close to boasting such clientele as those who passed through the doors of the Inner City Cultural Center on their way to stardom.
Gregory Peck was already a legend due to the 1962 film, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ when he shook hands with Jack and said, “I’m in!” before lending his resources to assist with fundraising efforts.
And so was Beah Richards, who had already won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sidney Poitier‘s mother in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ prior to her Inner City performance of ‘A Black Woman Speaks.’
Jack’s “vision” was to build an arts entertainment complex that would offer color-blind casting and allow artists of every discipline, in front and behind-the-scenes, to learn their craft and hopefully, be cast in non-traditional roles even after they left his theatre.
And they came in droves. More artists than you could ever name in one article was honored to walk through those doors.
Jack, who was a UCLA dance rehearsal pianist when he met community mental health expert Dr. J. Alfred Cannon in 1966 and talked about assembling other like-minded individuals — people passionate about uniting cultures, races and ethnicities — to see how they could develop solutions to the problems that plagued their communities.
The two decided creativity would be a good start.
Fueled by the Watts Rebellion (aka Watts Riots), which lasted for 5 days in 1965, the Inner City Cultural Center was born.
Now, 50 years later, the organization which rose “Out of the Ashes” like a phoenix, has quite an extraordinary history to look back on and celebrate.
For two consecutive days, Friday, November 4 and Saturday, November 5 they will roll out the red carpet to receive and honor alumni, celebrities, students, fans and more.
On Day 1, an awards presentation will salute actor George Takei (‘Star Trek’) with the “Inner City Essence Award.
Followed by an evening of presentations and entertainment. Concluding with a cabaret-style post awards reception.
On Day 2, the event will host a number of panel discussions related to theatre’s past, present and future; facilitated by leaders in the field.
Discussion topics will include (Devoting a C. Bernard Jackson) Library as a cultural legacy (moderated by Andrew Thornhill), the State of Theatre in general: funding/audience development/union & non-union/the 99-seat house and more, The Hollywood Diversity Report (moderated by Josefa Salinas) and concludes with an It’s a Wrap Celebrate Diversity cabaret-style reception from 6:00 – 9:00 pm. (Photo ops)
EURweb senior editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, spoke with William “Mickey” Stevenson, another legend who walked through the doors of Inner city Cultural Center and in the process, discovered another career (writing musicals). A Motown legend referred to as “Motown’s First A&R Man,” Stevenson is called an “unsung hero” by Motown founder, Berry Gordy.
Watch below as Motown founders Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson celebrate Mickey Stevenson
Mr. Stevenson is excited about the upcoming event celebrating the work of Inner City Cultural Center, and recalls his start in writing musical plays occurred there, quite by accident.
How Mickey Stevenson got involved with Inner City…
Clifford Rocquemore (director, producer) said, “Man it would be incredible if you would come by Inner City and say a few words to the kids there.”
Feeling a bit apprehensive, Stevenson asked, “What would I say to them?”
Rocquemore told him how the kids were familiar with his music from Motown, and said that he would certainly be an inspiration to them. “He was so emphatic and he had that look on his face, so I just couldn’t turn him down,” Stevenson said.
So the producer told Stevenson he would introduce him and when he was done he wanted Stevenson to just come on down the aisle and come on stage and say a few words.
“So when I stood up to come down the aisle, the kids went insane. They were stomping and clapping and I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t seen this kind of energy,” an emphatic Stevenson told Pryor by phone.
The kids had all kinds of questions.
“They had questions forever about singers…songs…the energy, dedications and all that kind of stuff,” Stevenson said.
The kids didn’t even want him to leave. And because Rocquemore was actually rehearsing for a performance, he asked Stevenson if he would write a song for the show.
“Man you know what would be incredible,” Rocquemore asked. “Could you write a song for this show we’re doing?”
“I said c’mon man, I don’t write songs for shows. I write records,” was Stevenson’s response. But the director wouldn’t hear of it. And he began to speak loudly, so that the kids would hear him. And they, in turn, started applauding to encourage Stevenson too.
“I said OK. OK,” Stevenson acquiesced. Telling Pryor he just intended to “whip something up” right quick.
Rocquemore advised him to watch what the kids were doing and then trust that the right thing would “come to him at the right spot.”
He did. And “it” did.
And that’s how he started writing musical theatre.
Stevenson took lessons from Motown to Inner City…
Inner City Cultural Center was formerly housed in a building on New Hampshire Street in Los Angeles. The area was, by any description, a rough one. Nothing pretty about it. Stevenson said he would drive there, park his car out front, and go inside and do his job.
“I’d tell the kids, you can get one of those too,” he said about the car they’d be wide-eyed over sitting outside. And told them, “Gifts come from God. Development comes from the ones around you, who believe in you.”
Because Rocquemore “Got into my head, that was a lesson and a learning process for me. Because when I watched, and I found the moment, and I did the song, and I gave it to them – I was learning more from them than they were learning from me. And that was a whole ‘nother world I went into. From that moment on, and that’s how we started,” Stevenson said.
On his relationship with C. Bernard Jackson
Stevenson became a constant figure at Inner City Cultural Center, and wrote four musical plays too; studying the masters like Rogers and Hammerstein “to see what they were doing and we weren’t.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of really great, talented people. And thanks to the Lord I have gotten them to do some of the things I’ve wanted them to do…I tuned in immediately to Jack. His gift to me was giving to others, at all costs. He would give up things that men would hang onto, including his time, to devote it to this feeling of giving to others.”
He says Jack told him he could do anything he wanted because he loved the way he had inspired the kids.
As the relationship between the two men progressed, both would find that they had resources useful to the other.
If Stevenson wanted to work on a play at ICCC, it was a done deal. If Jack needed to tap into Stevenson’s monetary resources to hold the theatre over until grants came in, no problem.
Stevenson talks about a time he says he never told anyone about…until now…with me.
“However they were getting money, from the City, or whoever was giving them money to stay open, sometimes it wouldn’t be on time and it would put Jack in a very uncomfortable position. So because of his dedication to those kids, he would come right out and ask [me].”
Stevenson said he always got everything back. Money was never a problem as Jack was a man of his word.
“I wouldn’t do this with people (lend money), but I felt I owed it to him because of what he was giving to others.”
On his first meeting with a young Forest Whitaker
“Because of Jack and Clifford, when I started doing my shows there…we, meaning Inner City, launched a lot of careers — including that of Forest Whitaker, who was in a show called “Swan” — a rock n roll show we took from Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass and made it one person called ‘LB Swan’.
Forest was in that show as…a gopher to one of the stars. You could see then how dynamic he was. He came to me one day and said, ‘Man could you manage me?’ and I said, Forest, I know nothing about managing actors, but I can tell you this: anybody who doesn’t see that you are great you don’t even want to talk to them. That’s how strong he was when he was on stage then!”
Stevenson also recalls a young Lynn Whitfield
“She did Josephine Baker in my show originally!”
Mr. Stevenson’s wish for the future of Inner City Cultural Center…
Unfortunately, Inner City Cultural Center has not been consistent over the past years, when it comes to mounting productions. I asked Mr. Stevenson what he thinks could turn something like this around. And why some facilities appear to be just sitting.
While the bottom line always seems to come back to everyone being on the same page and that page being dedication to our youth and their future, we talked about facilities such as the beautiful Ebony Theatre (which will host this event) on Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles and the Vision Theater in Leimert Park (which is and has for a l-o-n-g time been being upgraded).
These are lovely spaces that only do productions periodically.
Stevenson, who has a passion for the youth and their creative future says he hopes, “people will come together and make space for the young people to get in there and do great things!”
Inner City Cultural Center, “Out of the Ashes” 50th Anniversary celebration takes place with a BLACK TIE GALA on Friday, November 4 at 8:00 p.m. at the Ebony Theatre, 4716 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles 90016
Registration and Oral History interviews (by appointment) begin at 12:00 noon and continue until 6:00pm.
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About the writer of this article:
DeBorah B. Pryor is a theatre veteran of 20 years. As a member of AFTRA/SAG/Actors Equity she performed in dozens of plays and musicals before leaving the field to return to her writing career in 1993. As a published writer who began her career interviewing legends in the upstair dressing rooms of New York’s famed Apollo Theater in the early 1970s, in addition to artistic reviews, she has authored hundreds of features based on personal interviews with some of the most legendary artists of our time. She also worked in public relations at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and as a personal assistant to iconic musician Sly Stone. Her tenure with The Electronic Urban Report (EURweb) began in 2003, when founder Lee Bailey published an editorial she wrote in support of Michael Jackson entitled: Will Humanity Ever Visit the Media