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“Brothers from the Bottom” begins Billie Holiday Theatre’s two-year residency

Wendell Pierce to open Bed-Stuy theater’s Fort Greene run

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Started from the bottom now it’s here.

Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Billie Holiday Theatre is moving to Fort Greene for two years while construction crews give it an overhaul. Its opening show in its temporary new home is “Brothers from the Bottom,” a play starring Wendell Pierce about gentrification in New Orleans. The head of the 43-year-old playhouse said that the more centrally located digs at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse on Saint Felix Street will give the institution a chance to reach more people.

“With all the transit hubs there, it should be no problem for our audience to come out,” Marjorie Moon said. “And we should also be able to attract a new audience.”

The star power — Pierce played memorable roles in “The Wire,” “Treme,” and “Selma,” to name a few — should help pack the seats, too, she said.

“Curiosity will bring a lot of people out,” she said.

Moon started working at the theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Restoration Plaza back in 1974, seven years after the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation was founded as one of the nation’s first community-development groups.

The $4-million renovation should restore the theater to its former splendor, Moon said.

“I was here when the audience used to be captivated by the beauty of the space. It was just phenomenal, people loved coming here,” she said. “Over the years it has gotten worn. It doesn’t represent who we are anymore.”

Moon remembers a time when people would treat the venue like it was on Broadway, and that is something she hopes they can recapture.

“People would dress up in their mink coats and their Sunday clothes,” she said. “We’re looking to get that back.”

The overhaul is the institution’s first, and includes updates to the sound and lighting systems, stage, and handicap-accessible seats. Another entrance is also set to be added.

“It will really be like walking into a new theater,” Moon said. “We’re all in for a treat.”

The stage improvements are key, actually lowering its height to allow the audience a better view. Sight lines had always been a problem at the theater, Moon said.

The alterations are supposed to be done by the end of 2016, are being paid by grants from the Borough President’s Office, the city, and private donors.

The theater has a long history of giving African-American writers and actors a platform to put on new work. Samuel L. Jackson performed there as a young actor and Smokey Robinson had his first musical produced there. “Brothers from the Bottom” is the brainchild of the theater’s artistic director Jackie Alexander, a New Orleans native.

The Billie Holiday sprucing-up comes as the city and investors are directing new attention to Brooklyn’s grand old theaters, with Flatbush’s Kings Theatre freshly reopened after four decades and a $94-million renovation, and Fort Greene’s Paramount Theater in the process of reprising its role as a performance venue after a half-century as a college gym.

“Brothers from the Bottom” at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse (126 Saint Felix St. between Hanson Place and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, www.thebillieholiday.org). March 6–29. Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 and 7 pm. $20–$30.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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