There was a time when performances were everywhere in downtown Newark. Imagine walking down Broad Street and seeing Leontyne Price’s name on the marquee at the Mosque Theater or buying tickets for a George Bernard Shaw play at the Newark Theater. Vaudeville was at Keeney’s and Proctor’s Palace and burlesque at the Empire Theater. High brow, low brow. Newark had it all.
By the mid-century, most of the city’s fabled theaters and concert halls were shuttered. Today’s theater troupes have to make do. Pia Wilson, a playwright based in Newark, has rehearsed in offices and seen her plays performed on makeshift stages — and yet her stories transcend those limitations. “We have to use non-traditional theater spaces,” Wilson said. “I’d love to have more of my work up in Newark, but I don’t know many outlets for it.”
Wilson, who wrote the script for the “listening wall” at the city’s Tubman Monument that was performed by Queen Latifah, is proof that Newark has the talent for a vibrant theater scene. If only it had venues. That’s why NJPAC’s new Cooperman Center could be so transformative for downtown.
The proposed new building at 26-48 Mulberry Street, which was recently approved by the planning board, will allow the arts organization to expand its theater program and offer a new black box theater, according to Jennifer Tsukayama, Vice President of Arts Education. For the first time, students can also sign up for training in production like lighting and sound tech — creating a pipeline of homegrown talent.
“The arts aren’t just on the stage, it’s also in the back of the stage and everything else,” Tsukayama said. “We also heard from the artists that they want space to create new work and rehearse new work.”
The proposed new center, designed by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi, will be built on what is now a 140-car parking lot on Mulberry Street. NJPAC is in the process of a campus expansion since the performance hall opened to the public in 1997. Earlier this year, they revealed plans to redevelop the property near the Cathedral House on Rector Street. As part of the Cooperman Center, NJPAC is also renovating the Episcopal House at 30 Mulberry Street.
“It’s on a prominent corner,” said architect Michael Manfredi. “It has the potential to bring a lot of life to this particular intersection.”
This summer, Yendor’s Theater Company performed a production of Wilson’s Eternal City, a play set in a futuristic Newark, which was performed in the courtyard at the Newark Public Library. Last Sunday, her play Down Neck was at The Cathedral House. It is a testament to Wilson’s craft as a writer — and to the city’s appetite for the arts — that she finds a way to get her works performed without the infrastructure other cities have.
“There are some great playwrights here like Chisa Hutchinson,” Wilson said. “I’d like to see a little more investment — because the arts draw people to a city.”