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Historic Theater Set to Close

TONY COX, host:

San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theater, the city's oldest black theater company is no stranger to drama. But lately, it's been a different kind of drama. The troop will soon lose its lease and its beloved theater with it. The company has been performing downtown on Sutter Street for 19 years, but the building's owner is in the process of selling the property to the Academy of Art University effective July 31st, the day the theater's lease expires.

For more, we've got Quentin Easter, the executive director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater. Quentin, welcome to the show.

Mr. QUENTIN EASTER (Executive Director, Lorraine Hansberry Theater): Hello. Thank you.

COX: Before you and I begin our interview, I want to mention that we did invite the Academy of Art University to join us. They declined. However, we did get this statement from their attorney. And Quentin, I want you to hear it. It's from their attorney, Tim Tosta. He says, quote, "We have every interest in seeing the theater relocate and have offered financial and realty assistance. The truth is we never saw this coming. A public debate has ensued before a private dialogue began between the two parties. We had not even begun talks on all options before this all came out in the media. We have presented help and options and had not heard back from the executives involved with the theater. We want to do anything to help. It is not in our interest to see the theater close." That's the end of the quote.

So Quentin, what is the latest?

Mr. EASTER: Yes, we are continuing our discussions, and we have been in touch with the Academy of Art University, and we're hopeful that we can resolve the problem and that we can work out a solution.

COX: It sounds like there was some miscommunication, was there? About whether or not, in fact, you would have to leave or not leave, and who the actual owner of the property was, and who was making the decision about moving you?

Mr. EASTER: Yes. The situation is fluid. The Academy of Art is in the process of acquiring the building, and they have expressed to us their intention to convert the space, where the theater was currently located, into a gymnasium for the private use of its students, which triggered to the response that we have made.

And the community response has been a terrific outpouring in the community, supporting the theater's efforts to remain in the theater district in San Francisco. We made history in 1988, becoming the first and still only African-American theater to be located in the downtown theater district of San Francisco.

COX: Did you know this was coming?

Mr. EASTER: Well, we knew that we had to work with them. We did not know that the Academy of Art would become the owner. We were hoping that we would stay in the space. Our hope is that we can remain in the space. We are, as I indicated, continuing our dialogue with the Art Academy. We are hopeful that we can work with them. They are an Academy of Art University. We are an artistic institution. We hope they recognize the importance of the theater, and they want to work with us.

Our option, our - the best goal for us is to remain in the theater space we're in because the community came together in 1988. Over $500,000 was put into establishing the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in downtown. Public, private, community investment, the city has expressed its support for us. We had a unanimous vote of our board of supervisors yesterday - they are the governing body of the city - in support of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, urging all parties involved to come to a resolution. So the community is behind us, and we are hopeful that we can get a resolution with the Art Academy.

COX: Just so that we're clear. It's one thing to remain in the same structure; it is another to remain in the same district.

Mr. EASTER: Yes.

COX: Which is it that you want?

Mr. EASTER: Well, ideally, we would like to remain where we are. If that is impossible, and we don't think it is, then we hope that we can have the cooperation and support with the Academy of Art University to find a suitable location in the downtown theater district. As you know, real estate is not inexpensive. In 1988, dollars or $500,000 in - or 2007, it's considerably more. We have been attempting to see if there are alternative locations. We've not had not success in looking, and we would like to remain where we are if that can be arranged.

COX: Now, why do you say…

Mr. EASTER: Otherwise…

COX: Why do you say that you think that you can or possibly stay in a building that is being sold and the new owners are saying that you have to vacate?

Mr. EASTER: Well, we're hoping, for instance, that the Academy of Art University that it's a large building and primarily for the use of dormitories, and that wouldn't interfere with theater operation at all. And we think that we can remain if that is, in fact, possible. If not, we are open to relocation if we can find a suitable place and a partnership with the Art Academy. That is what we would like to pursue with them if we have exhausted the possibility of remaining.

COX: Now, as we bring our conversation to a close, and Quentin, I appreciate you coming on. You're not in danger of losing the Lorraine Hansberry Theater as a company, are you?

Mr. EASTER: Well, this is the concern, if the Academy of Art University is uncooperative and does not wish to work with us, and we have an abrupt departure and cannot find a suitable location, we are at risk. And that is why the community has expressed its strong support. And our civic leaders have expressed their strong support that the theater be not placed at risk during this period of time.

So we hope that we can continue. We hope that we can remain in downtown San Francisco because it's so important. San Francisco is a world-class city. And if we - yes, and if - part of its world-class status is because of the cultural diversity of its citizens and its art institutions.

COX: But once this is resolved, hopefully, it will be resolved, once it is, we'd like to invite you to come back and talk about what the new incarnation of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater Company will be.

Mr. EASTER: I certainly hope we can and, you know, those who wish to learn more about it and express their support for the theater can go to www.lhtsf.org to learn more about the situation. And thank you so much for allowing us the opportunity to speak, and we are hopeful that we can resolve our differences and remain in the theater district of downtown San Francisco.

COX: Quentin, thank you so much also. Quentin Easter is the executive director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater.

Again, we also reached out the building's future owner, the Academy of Art University. They did not comment - they did not come on, but they did give us a statement, which we read. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.