All adventures start with a dream. The Woodlawn Theatre is no different.
A few years back, my staff at Mason Music and I were dreaming about the future – what could Mason Music look like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years? We had some truly amazing discussions and some incredible visions of possible futures. One of the dreams that stood out, and I added to our long term plan, was to start our own live music venue.
That dream has been sitting on the back burner – a place where ideas go to die. “We’ll get there some day.” “Well, not this year, but maybe next.” All the usual excuses we use to avoid taking what we know to be a major risk.
Earlier this year, as I was looking for space to rent for our non-profit music lesson program, our executive director Jeanette Hightower was introduced to a man who was selling a building in Woodlawn. But not just any building – a building that had been a movie theatre in a previous life. A life when Woodlawn was a bustling suburb of Birmingham before ‘white flight’ took its toll.
Growing up in an affluent community, I was largely unaware of the privilege I enjoyed. I think most people are – it’s just the water we swim in. As I’ve grown and traveled and met people from different backgrounds, I have become increasingly aware of the systems of inequality that maintain the status quo – subtly running behind the scenes and being reinforced by the narratives we consume and pass along on a daily basis. This journey of awakening has picked up momentum this year through a series of chance encounters, books, podcasts, and conversations with new friends.
Years ago, I began to feel a calling on my life to use the resources I have, however small, to provide opportunities to those who are disadvantaged. I have been given much in my life – incredible parents, a loving and supportive community, financial support, a great education, opportunities to take risks with safety nets, and the list goes on. I am convinced that it is my responsibility to pass these provisions along to others, to share for the common good of man.
So – Woodlawn. Yes, this is where it all started for me. The people I’ve met, the books that have been recommended to me, the community forums, the conversations around race – it has all been centered around Woodlawn. When this building came to my attention, the dream of the music venue began to materialize.
Discovering the history of the building as a movie theatre was alluring and meaningful, because from 1929-1957 this space would have been subject to Jim Crow laws and not everyone would have been welcome. As we resurrect this building with the help of architects, designers and contractors, we are re-imagining a gathering place from a pre-civil rights era, but one that today will be welcoming to everyone.
There is still so much I don’t know. I mean that. I feel like an elementary school student learning about a subject with vast implications that most of the time are over my head. I am grateful for the many people who are patient with me when I ask simple questions, when I stumble over my words, when I show my ignorance, and when I need guidance along this journey. I am confident of one thing – this is important work, and I am learning more about myself and my city than I have at any other time in my life.
To be clear, I don’t think that I am going to do anything to ‘help’ Woodlawn. I am simply entering into the greater work that is already happening to revitalize this neighborhood by the only means I have – creating opportunities for jobs, access to life-enriching music education, and live entertainment. Nothing brings people together like music, so it’s my deep and sincere desire that this is a place where people connect over a good drink and some great music.
Stay tuned for more updates, and follow along @woodlawntheatrebham.
If you would like to learn more about the mission of the Mason Music Foundation or would like to be a part of this project by becoming a donor, please email our executive director, Jeanette Hightower.
Below are some of the resources on racial reconciliation and history that have been helpful to me. There are a TON of books on the topic – if you’ve read some, comment so I can add them to my 2020 reading list.
“White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White” – Daniel Hill
“Meals From Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence” – Ben Sciacca
“Carry Me Home: Birmingham, AL, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” – Dianne MicWhorter
“Pass The Mic” – Podcast from The Witness
All images by Rob Ingram