Merlene Davis: The Lyric is what community feels like

Elaine Baker, right, Eryn Dailey-Demby, Tiffiney Baker and Charlette Thompson rehearsed a scene from the Agape Theatre Troupe's latest production, The Duke, The Women, The Music in the Lyric Theatre on Monday.
Elaine Baker, right, Eryn Dailey-Demby, Tiffiney Baker and Charlette Thompson rehearsed a scene from the Agape Theatre Troupe's latest production, The Duke, The Women, The Music in the Lyric Theatre on Monday. Lexington Herald-Leader

Earlier this week, I asked Joan Brannon, acting program director of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, to give me a tour of the venue.

The night before my tour, I had attended part of the Agape Theatre Troupe's rehearsal of The Duke, The Women, The Music, and I was intrigued enough to see what kind of vibe I would get during the day.

We walked through the gallery, which this month features Rhythm in Relief, beautiful artwork created by LaVon Van Williams Jr., and through the space that is awaiting artifacts that will transform it into the African- American history museum. There is also space available for all sorts of educational offerings and gatherings.

The word that continuously came to mind as we went through the building was community.

The Lyric Theatre reopened in October after a $6 million renovation. It was built in 1948 as a grand, air-conditioned theater for black people and black acts during segregation. But it had sat empty, abandoned and deteriorating for nearly five decades after closing its doors in 1963.

So far, the Lyric has hosted an opening ceremony and a couple of concerts, a play by the Street Voice Council Players and a movie.

"The audiences react differently here," Brannon said. "And they are more diverse."

Brannon attended performances of the American Spiritual Ensemble and the play Please Don't Call Me Homeless ... I Don't Call You Homed, at the Lyric and in other settings. The Lyric audience seemed more enthusiastic than the others, Brannon said.

Everett McCorvey, University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director and founder and director of the Ensemble, agreed, saying this about the Lyric, "You just feel happy in there. There is a good energy.

"I think (the audience at the Ensemble performance) was the most diverse audience that the Ensemble has performed for," he said. "It was a true mix. There was a feeling of the way you would like our city and country to feel on a regular basis."

The audience acted like a community. It wasn't composed of just African-Americans, but also white people. Not just Christians, but also Jews. Not just older folk, but younger as well, he said.

"I think it is what everyone thinks of when they say how our world should be," McCorvey said. "That's what happens at the Lyric. I've heard that from many people."

The building, just like the neighborhood around it, is returning to its glory days, when blacks had only the Lyric to watch black entertainers who couldn't perform elsewhere.

What once was forgotten and ignored is alive again. What once was lost is found.

The East End corridor is being revitalized with new roads, houses and now the Lyric. It is all a part of the gentrification of a downtown neighborhood.

What we can't overlook, however, is that people who have sunk their roots in that area love that community. They held fast through the invasion of absentee ownership and drugs, and through years of having their pleas for help fall on governmental ears that wanted to hear no evil.

The sense of community held that neighborhood together long enough for the younger generation to rediscover what a gem it is, and for many to move into it and make it their home.

The renovation of the Lyric was offered as an appeasement for things done wrong, and soon neighbors and the neighborhood stood straighter. The eyesore is a gem again, reflecting the camaraderie remembered by the old folks and the newness embraced by the young.

"Inside the Lyric, you see all new, but it has this really old history, an old soul, like aged wine," McCorvey said. "I think there is such pride in it, not only from the African-American community but the entire community. Not every major metropolitan area can say they have a Lyric in their city."

The Lyric, with its 588 seats, is just the right size, too, said McCorvey, who also serves on the Lyric's board. And it is a bit more welcoming than the formality projected by other venues.

The first visit to the Singletary Center for the Arts or to the Lexington Opera House, he said, can be "a little tense" for some visitors.

"There is a formality about them," he said. But, "when they go to the Lyric, it's not as big and not as intimidating. The size is great."

For African-Americans who attend the Lyric, he said, "there is a very good chance that you may see more people who look like you, and that is less intimidating, too."

There are memories associated with the Lyric, as well. Fond memories. And that's what made Cathy Rawlings, founder of Agape Theatre, push to perform there this weekend despite the bugs that needed to be worked out.

The musical is about Duke Ellington, who played the Lyric during its heyday, and the women who sang in his band.

Rawlings and Deb Shoss, the play's director, said changes had to be made to the Lyric's stage floor and to the lighting, and microphones had to be rented, all of which added to the cost of the production.

Rawlings could have scheduled the play for another venue, which would have eliminated some of those complications, "But I want it to work. And Joan has gone to bat for us, and I didn't want to let her down," Rawlings said.

"She and I both really want the Lyric and Agape to have a working relationship. It is just the magic of it all."

As we grow older, it gets harder to believe in magic, but we all understand what community feels like. And while a building, even a renovated and rejuvenated one, can't manufacture a community, it can be used to rebuild one.

That's what the Lyric does. Go to the play this weekend and see for yourself.

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