The question continues to be: How best to boost the Strand? Residents in Uphams Corner neighborhood have their hopes, and their fears

Residents in Uphams Corner neighborhood have their hopes, and their fears

Tucked away on a hill at the center of one of the nation’s most diverse ZIP codes is a grand dame of a theater that bore witness to the end of WWI and silent films, the start of “talkies,” and the civil rights movement and hosted on its stage the likes of Tracy Chapman, B.B. King, and Public Enemy.

The Strand Theatre — which some locals fondly call “the people’s theater” — has stood more than a century in Uphams Corner. It is the only large-scale theater in the city located outside of Boston’s Theater District and in a community of color.

The history of this onetime vaudeville place and movie house includes many peaks and valleys. It opened on Nov. 18, 1918, the day WWI ended, and moviegoers rushed through its doors to be greeted by ushers in white gloves for a celebration of the signing of the Armistice. It remained a movie house until 1969 when it closed due to declining ticket sales.

The Strand then sat empty for a decade before the city of Boston took it over in 1979, prompted by pressure from residents, and leased the premises for $1 a year to a nonprofit established by local residents. Once again in financial straits, the nonprofit dissolved in 2004. Since then, the city has struggled to fill the facility’s 1,400 seats.

But people still talk about its heyday in the ‘90s. “A lot of the rising stars of Boston came through there,” said Ramona Lisa Alexander, arts and culture manager at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and an actress. “It was like the place you had to perform if you were in the arts in Boston.”

Alexander, who most recently played Circe in Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey boston,” at Central Square Theater, remembers teens learning set and lighting design and managing the box office. She performed in shows such as Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf” at the Strand.

This is what the city of Boston would like to see the Strand become again, a warm beating heart at the center of Dorchester, a cultural hub humming with activity, and, most importantly, a safe space for young people. But since 2004, the theater has not attracted a nonprofit or cultural organization to continuously fill the space.

The city wants to lease the space to an operator or developer that will infuse it with new programming. But first, it has been trying to understand what community members would like to see at the Strand. City officials have held community meetings for a year and a half, where residents have asked questions, and given suggestions on what they wanted to see in their neighborhood theater.

They also have expressed fears. On post-it notes and poster board, many were concerned that this renewed interest in the Strand wasn’t for them.
“How will the Strand improve programming without pricing out residents?” wrote one resident. “I’m most interested in seeing the Strand reconfigured to meet modern-day needs of local performers ... a wide variety of spaces, black box, rehearsal spaces, theater…” wrote another. “I’m most interested in ensuring that the neighborhood remains affordable and that residents get to define what affordable means,” wrote a third. 

Said Lori Lobenstine, a program design lead at the Design Studio for Social Intervention, who oversaw meetings with residents about the future of the theater: “There’s this funny dichotomy where there’s a sense that there’s this community of color in Uphams Corner and so it needs a certain kind of programming and then there’s a larger theater community, which is somehow always seen as white. When there’s this larger African Diaspora, Cape Verdean Diaspora — like people come to Uphams Corner to go to Brothers supermarket or to go to their church - it could serve the region in some ways that are also very relevant to the communities that are here right now.”

Added Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture: “This is really about what do community members, what do they want to see in this space in the future, what’s the identity of it. This is a city-owned building ... that has significance to people. It means something about the building’s mission, how to actually be accessible and how to be not just a place for performance but for incubating local businesses, local artistry, being relevant to the community that we’re in.”

The Strand has undergone a slow, but steady makeover for decades, Elliott-Ortega said. She estimates the city has spent close to $20 million in the last decade alone. The latest additions include updated bathrooms, a newly installed elevator and a working marquee, which city officials hope will soon light up the night with upcoming performances to attract the community to its doors.

The theater is mentioned both in the city’s Boston Creates Cultural Plan and the citywide Imagine Boston 2030 program. In the minds of city officials, continuing renovations at the Strand is a key part of building up the rest of the block with the addition of a new library and maintaining affordable housing.

“I think sometimes people feel like there aren’t a lot of things going on at the Strand,” Elliott-Ortega said. “But it was actually booked almost every Friday, Saturday last year. Some things only fill the orchestra. You know they’ll only do 300 seats or something like that and that’s fine. But there are still events that, like, pack the house.”

With recent shows such as Boston Answering, a response to Boston Calling, and a conversation on racism set for October with diversity instructor and educator Jane Elliott, there are stirrings of a new era for this quintessential community theater, one that invites innovative art, experiments, and provokes cultural conversations.

“The Strand is a beautiful old building and it feels like it is has not been renovated to the level of some of the downtown theaters,” Lobenstine said. “You feel some of that disrepair but you feel so much possibility. When you meet with some of the folks that have been involved with the Strand over the decades you feel so much love, so much passion from what they’ve put into it, the frustrations they’ve experienced, their belief in it as a space.”

City officials said they have made a concerted effort to work hand-in-hand with organizations such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the Design Studio for Social Intervention, artists from the area and an advisory board of residents. Elliott-Ortega heard the stories of residents who had their first dates with their spouses at the Strand long ago and years later are invested in seeing it thrive.

“I feel like there’s a lot of presence in the Strand. There’s a lot of history and it has kind of this majestic, historic quality to me. There’s a lot of respect in the Strand,” she said. “The push for it to be like a ‘people’s theater,’ for it to really be of the community in a deep way, that affects every operating decision.”

Phyllis Y. Smith, a production stage manager for the Boston Center for the Arts, found her calling behind the curtains of the Strand. Smith’s mother wanted to find something to keep her then-13-year-old daughter busy that summer. “I joined against my will,” Smith said, laughing. “I was not for performing. I still am not. But through the Strand Teen Players I found a family, a home, a place where I felt welcome and comfortable. A place where people accepted me ... that’s what led to me taking the path that I currently am on.”

Smith still sees the Strand’s massive stage, rich red and gold hues and patches on the walls, where old paint meets new in a melange of the past and the present, as a haven. It just needs a little TLC. “If you were a kid and you had you had nowhere to go after school, just drop by,” Smith said. “Just drop by and you could learn.”

Cristela Guerra is an arts and culture reporter for The ARTery, WBUR’s Arts and Culture Team