Freedom Theatre Alumni Coalition Speaks Out Against Current Direction
Inside the 50 year-old institution, the 6:30PM showing of “Black Nativity” went on. Outside the theater, patrons and members of the Alumni Coalition of New Freedom Theatre gathered to protest the theater’s current direction and the lack of response to their inquiries about that direction.
“We have nothing! We have nothing!” screamed a Freedom Theatre alumni member on Thursday, December 1st.
The protesters were asking the Freedom Theatre’s board of directors to include them in its plans for the future. The group sent a certified letter on November 12th after three legacy members of the organization — Patricia Scott Hobbs, Diane Leslie and Gail Leslie — were fired with only two hours notice for what alumni members describe as an “unknown reason.” Executive director Sandra Haughton has come under fire by the Alumni Coalition. Haughton was named executive director in January 2015, according to the theatre’s website.
According to Newsworks, following a period of hard times, the Freedom Theatre recently became solvent by selling some real estate holdings and having most of its debt forgiven. The theatre has also hired new artistic staff members and is revamping its education program. However, longtime supporters feel as though they have been shut out of that future.
Sekou Campbell, a supporter of the proests, said Freedom Theatre has since sold its parking lot and began leasing out parts of the building that used to be studio apartments for artists to stay in during performances.
“This is a tremendous asset. Why would an institution that has been around for 50 years in this neighborhood be putting workers on the street and selling pieces of its property? And that’s why we are asking for transparency,” said Campbell.
In an interview with CBS Philly, Haughton described the changes as an attempt to keep the legacy of the theatre alive. “If you want to live and you want to grow and progress — changes are made.”
“We understand effectuated change,” said Storm Lashley, an alumna and member of the Alumni Coalition. “Changing of titles is just part of the change that occurs. We can’t really speak for sure what those changes were and that’s what we are trying to figure out.”
The letter asked for inclusion of alumni in the continuation of the theater’s growth and offered support in fundraising activities, grant writing, theater and dance instruction, as well as social media communication and advertising.
It listed questions such as: “What are the intentions for the theatre’s repertoire and training program’s continuation? What are the plans for recruitment of students, staff members and program management?”
“It was how [the changes] were ushered in… You can’t give people that have been part of this institution going on fifty years now two and a half hours to move out 50 years worth of things and that’s exactly what happened,” said Lashley.
“I can’t go into the details of our procedures,” Haughton told CBS Philly about the legacy members’ quick removal. “But let me say we had an attorney and an HR company to advise us on the best way to manage this transition.”
The two-page letter also inquired about the legacy member’s exemption. Wife of the theater’s original founder, Joyce Schmidt Ojo-Allen said, “It hurts. It really hurts and I’m doing better now… I would like… Sandra Haughton removed from the theater.”
“Sandra, in her position, is the steward,” said Campbell. “It’s a public institution non-profit that exists for the community and it doesn’t exist for her. My interest is for the health of the institution and if they can’t provide that… then we need to replace them.”
Tears streaming down her face, one alumni member said, “The people going in there right now have no idea what’s going on. [Haughton] has decided to hand everything over for money and Temple University. This is how we end up with nothing. They make it look grand like they are doing us a favor. And then little by little as you see – we end up with nothing. You take people like skilled artists like Pat Hobbs, and you kick her out and give her two hours. Do you understand what she did for the community? The embarrassment? The indecency? There is not reason!”
She described that she grew up inside the theater and with Haughton in charge it would no longer be Freedom Theatre anymore.
“I feel like somebody has raped me,” she said, “This was my youth!”