The Jamaica cultural institution at 176-03 Jamaica Avenue had been a staple in the community for more than four decades, but suffered a fire that destroyed most of its second floor.
Fire officials told the theater’s executive director, Saiku Branch, that the blaze was caused by an electric spark in the wall that caused a lamp to catch fire.
Branch was at the movie theater with his kids when he received the call around 7:30 p.m. about the fire. At the time, the Afrikan Poetry Theatre was hosting a talent showcase for youth, and Branch credits his program director Vernon ‘Smij Williams for evacuating about 40 people.
No one endured injuries, but the building suffered substantial damage.
“We pretty much lost the second floor,” Branch said.
The second floor was home to a computer lab, film equipment and an office space. The first floor also underwent a lot of water and smoke damage.
Since the fire, Branch has been back to the site to see if he could salvage anything. He and his team were able to gather some artwork, but the building isn’t safe at this point, he said, adding that there are machines currently cleaning the air.
Branch’s father, John Watusi Branch, opened the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in 1976 with Yusef Waliyaya. The institution serves as a cultural resource and provides programming centered on education, recreation and social development.
The Afrikan Poetry Theatre serves thousands of people annually.
In 2016, a section of Jamaica Avenue on 176th Street was renamed in honor of his father, who passed away in 2013.
“Our first concern is how to continue the programs, because people look forward to it and they rely on it,” Branch said, adding that some of the programming includes film, acting and ESL classes. “We are still looking for places so our young people can meet and have their events.”
So far, they’ve found some space at the Museum of the Moving Image, which will allow the organization to hold some of their film classes, but they are still looking for other locations.
“We just want to reach out to anybody if they have space that they could loan us, because that would be great so we could do the these programs, a lot of which are free for the community,” Branch said.
Branch hopes the theater can rebuild within a year, but for now, they aren’t sure of a timeline and are taking it one step at a time.
The Board of Directors chair Gregory Branch said the theater caters to the diverse population of Queens and hosts events that feature people from all backgrounds.
The organization has set up a Go Fund Me page to help cover costs for the restoration of the computer lab, as well as the film and acting studio. They are hoping to raise $100,000.
Additionally, the Afrikan Poetry Theatre needs to make upgrades to building systems, including fire and safety prevention measures and wiring.
“We need your help,” Gregory said. “We intend to rebuild, we’ve been serving the community for over 40 years and there’s no reason to stop.
“We need to raise funds to get the theater in some kind of working order, but we’re also looking at longer-term goals,” he added. “This is not a band-aid, fix but we can’t do it without the community.”
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