HER LIFE IS HER ART
Photos Myrna Suarez | Words Tamara Rappa
Born and raised in Harlem, Sade Lythcott is the CEO of The National Black Theatre and the daughter of the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, award-winning visionary artist and entrepreneur. Board chair and members include her brother and also notables like the poet Cleo Wade and actors David Alan Grier and Zoe Kravitz. Sade currently serves as the Chair of the Coalitions of Theaters of Color, representing the oldest theaters of color in New York State and sits on the national board of advisors for ArtChangesUs. She is the recipient of several awards herself, and in 2012 Sade wrote and produced highly acclaimed musical, A Time To Love, garnering the Key to Harlem for her excellence in the arts. Taking over her mother's roles as both Theatre head and as a an important champion for African-American arts and culture at large, Lythcott says her mother's sudden death put her where she was meant to be. "The language in which the universe speaks to me is through crisis", Sade told us, and that everything she has in her life has come to her through some kind of crisis. The one-time MTV producer, swimsuit designer, and wardrobe stylist to Lenny Kravitz (who wrote a song about her, inspired by her sense of expression through dance), says that her former fashion life in some ways was killing her, and that the death of her mother awakened her purpose. We spoke in depth with Sade about both the Theatre and her mother's stories, discussed the role of healing in her own life and in the Theatre's mission, her sources of inspiration, her "island girl" outlook, and more.
How did you come to run The National Black Theatre, taking it on from your mother? After producing MTV's TRL, and wanting to leave around the time of 9/11 because of how it was being handled at the company, my plan was to start my own production company to create shows that were reflective of the youth culture I knew, ones that straddled different communities---not just the teeny-bopper-boy-band culture of the time. And then People Magazine found me on the red carpet at the VMA's while I was producing a segment. They liked my style, I'd made my own outfit, and they ended up giving me a monthly column. Then my friend, the stylist Wendy Schecter, ended up hiring me as her assistant. I turned that into my own short stint of styling alongside my best friend, and that took us on tour with Lenny Kravitz. I got so burnt out by the Baptism Tour---that grind was crazy. My friend and I found ourselves taking stock after that, and decided to start a swim line. Though the collection was sold in beautiful stores, we never got out of the startup phase. Then it was 2008 and both of my partners fell in love, and kind of started living this fairy tale love story. The line started to become less of a priority for them and it was then that I realized I might soon be working on the collection by myself. Next came this full-circle-moment, four years after I stopped styling Lenny. He'd written a song about me called Dancing Til Dawn (the way that I always let off steam was by dancing, and he and I had so many dance parties on tour). I was in Miami for Swim Week, and I called my mother because Lenny wanted to fly me to Budapest to be in the music video for the song. And my mom encouraged me to do it, even though I felt I should stay in Miami for work. I needed my passport, and she was preparing to send it to me. The next call that I got was at 5am, I'll never forget it. It was my mom's assistant telling me that my mom had dropped dead and I needed to come home immediately. I got on the first plane back to New York and was devastated; my mother was my best friend. I'd never moved out of our house. I lived in other places, but we were so close, she always wanted me nearby. The crazy thing is that she'd sent my passport to Miami and it eventually got rerouted to me in New York along with a note that said "life is short, live it as loud as possible". Right after her death, the board of The National Black Theatre asked me to join temporarily. The Theatre was my mother's passion, her experiment, but it was also an albatross for her because although she worked so hard on it, she never expected my brother or I to get involved. She wanted us to choose what we wanted to do in life, and we didn't choose the theater. Until the Theatre chose us. Now my brother is my board chair, and I run it. My life has literally never been the same since.
What is the story behind the creation of The National Black Theatre? My mother created a theater not because she was so in love with the craft. She was a highly trained dancer and actor and director...the craziest pedigree in terms of having all those skills. In 1968, when America was on fire and Dr. King was assassinated, she was a woman who was so extremely talented and well trained, but could only get the roles of "Prostitute 1" or "Housekeeper 2". At the time, she wrote a front page story for the New York Times titled The Black Woman, She Does Exist. It was about the polarizing casting of women of color. She then decided she wanted to start a theater as a piece of revolution. Her theater was about healing those oppressive stories in all of us. Theater is such a transformative space, one in which you can really tap into people's hearts and minds. And if she could do that from the perspective of healing our own narratives and community, she wanted to pursue it. So she left downtown and her loft in Chelsea, and moved to Harlem to start The National Black Theatre. And her actors weren't actors, because she believed that people of color endure so much rejection anyway, to layer that with being an actor and having to audition and being rejected...would be devastating. So she created a God-conscious art form, as opposed to a self-conscious art form, where it really starts from within. Her belief was 'my actors won't be actors, they'll be liberators'. She began with a troop of liberators, and we've continued that for the last half-century.
If you were to give yourself a personal "title", what would that be? Very core to who I am is that I am an 'island girl'. And because I'm black, people associate that with the Caribbean. But my island is Manhattan. I was born and raised on the island of Manhattan, I went to NYU here, and I will die here. I have and will possibly still live in other places, but core to who I am is the resilience, the unexpected beauty, and the juxtapositions of being an island girl. I'm a deeply passionate, soulful person who cares about holding space for community, creating community, and healing community. It's what I do in my practice and in my work. It's what I've always done in my friend groups too.
How exactly do you heal people in your work? We develop, incubate, and produce contemporary African-American playwrights. Our approach to producing is what we've coined as "holistic producing". Which means we ask our playwrights to create the most brilliant piece of work they can, in an environment that is reflective of the totality of who they are, not just the skill set that they have. That part is healing for artists of color, in general. What we do with each play is that we don't ask them to be political, we ask them to write whatever they want, and we tease out social justice and social impact themes that exist in the work, and then blow those up into dramaturgical lobby exhibits. I feel that community really wants to be in conversation with community. Theater and the arts can be beautiful, but on a surface level and in school when you're learning something that doesn't resonate with you or you don't know why it should, you ask the question, 'when will I ever need this?' 'How does this affect me?' Our dramaturgical lobby exhibits are the bridges between the community and the art itself. We create immersive exhibits. I create altar installations each time we have an exhibit. I firmly believe in creating holding space for our healing and conversations for community around the works of art. At the end of every show we have a post-show discussion that brings in the topic of the lobby and the art itself, so that community can be in relation to each other and the work. It's very rewarding because our community is changing, Harlem is shifting. The fact that we get reviewed the way we do and receive the awards we receive...our audience is truly diverse---from generational, cultural, and economic standpoints. So to be in this 99 seat black box sitting next to people you never would be unless you're sitting on the subway, and having deep discourse around our own healing and the totality of our humanity, is what makes what we do so steeped in healing.
How do you get your best ideas? I really believe in channeling and downloading. I talk to my mom all the time, and people think it's crazy. I had a random conversation one year at Sundance with Woody Harrelson, whose father had died. He found it so fascinating that I talk to my mother. He asked how I do it and he wanted to learn. And I said, 'the funny thing is, I've never stopped talking to her'. You take the time to pause, and realize that the answers are there, and you just need to tap into them. You get messages and you just need to be quiet enough to hear them.
What do you do when you're stuck? Dance. I move things through my body. That's how I grieve. That's how I get ideas too. I just have to move.
What is your version of a t-shirt and jeans? I like the concept of a t-shirt and jeans, because it's the idea of being comfortable, and 'in your own skin'. For me, though, that's never really t-shirt and jeans. My equivalent is anything well made and also comfortable; an outfit that accentuates the things that I'm very happy with, and diminishes the things I feel I can work on. A boyfriend jean is the jean direction that I'll go in. And I like shirts that are more form-fitting, because I like my décolletage. Right now I'm wearing a Mara Hoffman shirt with chambray wide leg pants that I got at a flea market, and a vintage brown leather belt from the 70's. The things that are older seem to be made better. I love the adrenaline high and thrill of the find you get shopping for thrift and vintage items. And I think growing up with a mother who was a performer, my love for costumes, fashion, and style got started very early.
Are you afraid of anything? Yes and no. I believe fear is such an amazing motivator. I dig feeling fear because it helps me to tap into something I'm ready to get over or need to get over. But in my personal life I think sometimes I'm afraid of change. Harlem is changing so much. The needs of the theater are changing so much. And though there's a part of it that's very exciting, there's also a part of it that's very scary for me.
Where do you find inspiration? I get so many of my ideas in the ocean. Water really speaks to me and I'm a water sign. I'm really inspired by my son and being able to relive my own childhood through his unabashed joy.. And my partner in crime, my artistic director, Jonathan. Jamming on things with him is very inspirational to me.
Do you have a dream collaborator? Arthur Jafa. AJ is such a prolific visual video artist. The way that he captures the soul of black folk really mirrors my experience. So my dream collaboration would be to do something with AJ.