Bam House, Oakland, theater

Oakland’s First Poet Laureate Finds A Home For City’s Oldest Black Theater Company

“To erase what came before is not being with nature,” Oakland’s first poet laureate, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, once said. “The archeology of natural change is kind because it encompasses everything that came before.”

Change has come for the Black arts community in downtown Oakland, and after a dismal season of business closures, another blooms opportunity. There’s a new cultural center and theater on the block, dubbed The Bam House.

At 1540 Broadway, wanderers and community members alike can see BAM’s vibrant logo adorned on a black, red, and green storefront canvas. PianoFight Oakland, the 100-seat downtown theater previously known as the Flight Deck, closed its doors in March, per an Oaklandside news report. Now, a new season is here for the culture-making Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation to make a home for Oakland’s oldest Black theater company.

“This is about more than just having a new home for Black art,” said Nzinga, founder and director of both BAMBD CDC and Lower Bottom Playaz. “Oakland elected and appointed officials pay good lip service to the importance of art in the cultural fabric of Oakland. They have consistently failed to make a substantive investment in ensuring that art—particularly Black art—has sufficient places to thrive, cultural kitchens if you will.”

Nzinga is the mastermind behind the homecoming. She told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I make things rather than admit to being broken or imperiled or grieving.”

She is an actress, producing director, playwright, poet, dramaturg, performance consultant, educator, and community advocate. Nzinga created the development corporation in 2016 after downtown’s 14th Street corridor was named the city’s official Black Arts Movement And Business District. Since 1999, Lower Bottom Playaz has been advocating for the community through art. The theater troupe is also the first theater troupe in the world to complete the August Wilson Century Cycle chronologically.

A legacy of hosting a wealth of community-building activities and continuing advocacy for Oakland’s artists and culture makers continues.

“I founded BAMBD CDC to prevent further displacement of artists of color who at one time permeated West Oakland,” Dr. Nzinga stated in a press release. “The acquisition of this space is a crucial move to preserve art-making space in the Black Arts district and to sustain Oakland’s oldest Black theater company.”

According to the release, the space’s official and public relaunching takes place during the 2023 BAMBDFEST. The new space will bring the fourth rendition of the BAMBDFEST International Biennial. It is a month-long arts and cultural festival offering Monday night readings of new works by Black artists, cultural exchanges, conversations with Black artists across the diaspora, and August Wilson’s Radio Golf.

Nzinga secured a renewable three-year lease thanks to funding from Tao Rising and Vanguard Charitable for programming, the Hewlett Foundation for general operating support, and the Mellon Foundation for staffing. She now has a full-time crew of 10.

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