Embrace Lyric's past and future

Wanda Higgins and Odell Pittman looked closely at one of the quilts hanging in the gallery at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
Wanda Higgins and Odell Pittman looked closely at one of the quilts hanging in the gallery at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Angela Baldridge

There was excitement in the air at the recent grand reopening of the Lyric Theater, now the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. A diverse, high-energy crowd engaged with a series of speakers and performers as the community rejoiced over reviving a landmark that had languished unused for almost four decades.

The moment was a long time in coming, taking as it did years of litigation, $6 million in public funds and many hours of encouragement and arm-twisting by a host of community supporters.

The questions now: What next? What role should the Lyric play in our community?

Arts programming — dance, music and plays — is scheduled at the Lyric for the next few months. In an encouraging sign of outreach, the University of Kentucky African American Studies and Research Program has scheduled a monthly series of "community conversations" at the Lyric featuring African-American scholars and researchers.

There were many hopeful remarks on opening night and throughout the project about the Lyric spurring revitalization in Lexington's East End, a largely African-American community that has languished in recent decades.

The Lyric can and should be a rallying point for an East End revival. But it will take much more than this one project to accomplish that for an area within walking distance of our city's downtown, two universities and some of the most ambitious redevelopment projects in the community.

Residents still struggle with high unemployment, poor housing and lack of access to services most Lexingtonians take for granted, including a decent supermarket.

The Lyric alone can't fight those issues. That will require persistent, committed effort by city government, East End residents and the wider community.

Our fear is that the Lyric will become another public project that civic leaders check off on a list of "to-do" projects for the African-American community. Find the funding, appear at the photo-ops and move on to more important stuff.

There is also a risk that the Lyric will be viewed as belonging only to the African-American community, with questions or suggestions about programming, management or funding considered interference.

Neither approach will help the Lyric become what it should be: an integral part of Lexington's growing array of arts and cultural venues.

Although the Lyric's very existence was a product of segregation, it was, as Arthur Guy remembered on opening night, one of the few entertainment venues that opened all its doors to everyone.

"It was a wonderful place. It wasn't segregated like other theaters in the city, so you could sit anywhere you wanted, and everybody in the community came here," Guy told reporter Jim Warren.

There are rare moments when we feel truly connected as a community. They usually come with great tragedies such as the Comair 5191 crash or great victories such as a national championship for the Wildcats.

The reopening of the Lyric was one of those moments. But we all know that these unifying moments are followed quickly by the resurgence of old divisions.

The Lyric's history is part and parcel of the tortured history of race relations in Lexington and this country. We must face and embrace that history honestly, fearlessly and collectively if both the Lyric and our community are to survive and thrive.