East Bay Center reopens, provides second home for young Richmond artists

on September 28, 2011

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, Monday night passersby on Macdonald Avenue peer in curiously at a whirl of dance.

Fingers snap. Feet slide. Hands swoosh a horsehair prop through the air, slapping the knees at intervals. The bright pastels of Victoria Secret sweatpants flash across the room in a blur of pink, yellow and turquoise.

The dancers chant a call and response in a West African language: “Wadapo!” Drums pound in a flurry of beats, a cowbell keeping the rhythm.

The Youth West African Dance class is one of many in the first official week of classes at the newly reopened East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Richmond. And even on a Monday, the place is buzzing with students.

After six years of gutting and reconstructing the old Winters Building on 11th Street — a $16 million project — EBCPA has emerged a beautiful, spacious structure with a state-of-the-art theater, practice rooms and a spring-floor dance studio. The new center will host a Community Launch Party with performances and food on Thursday, October 6 to celebrate its reopening, followed by a free Family Day on Saturday, October 8.

East Bay Center director Jordan Simmons (center) plays drums Monday nights with the West African Music & Dance Ensemble. Simmons finds that the center acts as a place of discovery for his students.

A second home for 350 Richmond youths that reaches out to thousands more from surrounding areas, EBCPA boasts a faculty of Bay Area performing artists who teach music, dance, acting and singing in after-school and weekend classes and private lessons.

“Finding a beautiful way to tell one’s story is purpose,” said EBCPA director Jordan Simmons, 56, smiling through a full beard. Simmons joined the Center at its opening in 1968 as a piano student.

“I really felt that the center was a place that hidden within it, had the potential to be a place where young people could discover their gifts, discover themselves, but more — to tell the story of their neighborhood,” Simmons said between shrieks from the students in the Acting Fundamentals class on the stage of the new theater.

In his three decades as director, Simmons has fostered this safe, creative space for students ages two and up. In addition to group classes and private lessons, EBCPA offers a four-year scholarship diploma program for promising students, hosts nine resident companies including Iron Triangle Theater and the Richmond Jazz Collective, and collaborates with community programs like the Richmond Main Street Initiative in performances throughout the Bay Area.

No student has ever been turned down for a group class due to lack of funds, Simmons said. The center, located in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, has many financial supporters, from the City of Richmond to the California Arts Council.

For the students, many of whom attend Richmond and El Cerrito high schools, EBCPA is a familial place.

“There are a lot of kids here who have families who are not supportive,” said Mariela Contreras, 20, a Richmond resident who has been coming to the center since the age of three and now works as a hip-hop teaching assistant. “We are a family, supportive.”

Deontae Watkins, 15, learned how to get over his fear of public speaking through the center’s classes. Watkins, who came to the center after having trouble getting performing arts classes at his high school, wanted to be an actor. At the center, where diversity in the arts is encouraged, Watkins ended up loving dance classes – and then music, and singing. “One time, as we were reading a script — it was about a beat pattern in how you say the words — they corrected me,” Watkins said. “I took that correction and felt it go through my body and out my voice. I felt it. That is so cool.”

It’s an essential thing to find a creative outlet, said Ruthie Dineen, the outreach and student services coordinator for EBCPA. From West African Dance to Traditional Mariachi Music, the center provides a range of classes for students to explore and find their place.

“A beautiful part of the center is we focus on the whole person,” Dineen said. “Finding yourself as an artist helps you find yourself as a person.”

Rashida McGee, 17, has been going to EBCPA since the age of three. She plays acoustic guitar, sings and writes her own music.

For Rashida McGee, 17, finding herself came in the form of Lloyd Gregory’s guitar class, which she has been taking for the last eight years. “I like being able to put my emotions into whatever I want to play,” McGee said, tucking her dark hair behind a bright blue and green feather earring that she made herself. “It’s a good stress reliever.

On Monday nights before class, Gregory takes his students for a bite to eat and conversation. He tries to teach his students how music is a “living, breathing entity, like everything else,” he said.

Monday, at 6 p.m. Gregory asked McGee to play one final song before the end of class. She launched into a McGee original, called “Hey.”

“This is the first, simplest song that I’ve ever made,” said McGee, playing on an acoustic guitar provided by the center.

Back in the lobby, jazz music came from one room, African beats from another. Former students wandered through, visiting old friends — many of them faculty. Somewhere downstairs, guitars strummed next to saxophones, and a 5-year-old prodigy tickled the ivories.

“Every kid is challenged—rich kid, poor kid, every race and culture,” Simmons said. “We tell students, you’re going to have to reinvent and make this thing come alive in the next generation. We want to make students who are better than us.”

On Saturday, EBCPA will host a Premier Gala Dinner to thank its community supporters. At $500 a ticket, the gala will help finish raising the final $1 million for the completion of the center’s reconstruction. “Alice Waters wanted to cook dinner,” said Simmons of the Chez Panisse owner, who will cater the event. Honorary committee members for the Gala include M.C. Hammer and Carlos Santana.

The dinner, featuring performances by the center’s students, will be held in part to thank community supporters, including the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency ($3.2 million donated), the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($2.5 million) and New Markets Tax Credit Equity ($3.7 million).

Back in the dance studio, the West African Music & Dance Ensemble for adults closes out the center’s Monday at about 8:30 p.m. Simmons plays the drum for the class, pounding the rhythm with eyes closed. “One, two, three, and one, two, three…”

“It’s a dream in modern life that things like this could happen,” Simmons said. “This isn’t Star Search, it’s not a place where we promise them modeling careers. It’s a long slow process to gain skills. Students have to work hard here.”

But the hard work pays off at the center, through talent, the fusing of relationships and keeping alive the arts traditions of different cultures. “We all have the ability for transcendence,” Simmons said. “We can access what is beautiful, and love. I think that’s why people stay here.”

Check out upcoming events at EBCPA here.

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