Back in the early 1980s, Dr. Fred Newman and Dr. Lenora Fulani were leading a multi-racial group of community activists and organizers in building a movement for independent politics. It had started as a ragtag crew of 60s radicals organizing in NYC’s poor communities a decade before, and was now gaining attention and branching out.
Some of the people who were attracted to this nascent political movement were artists – painters, playwrights, actors, and dancers – who saw the need for a cultural voice for their activism, and formed the Otto René Castillo Cultural Center for Working Class Culture on East 20th Street in the Flatiron District. The center produced gallery exhibits, break-dancing contests, comedy shows, and theatrical productions. And a lot of trial and error.
In 1989, after the Castillo collective and the broader political community they were part of had gotten Dr. Lenora Fulani on the US presidential ballot in all 50 states, Castillo moved to a block-long loft space at 500 Greenwich Street and rebranded itself the Castillo Cultural Center. They produced theatre – Fred Newman became artistic director – along with producing the All Stars Talent Show Network community talent shows around the city and a weekly independent newspaper.
Fred Newman had written 6 plays that were produced at 20th Street. But it was 500 Greenwich Street that was Newman and Castillo’s cultural laboratory. Between 1989 and 2003, Fred Newman wrote 29 plays and musicals that Castillo produced, including Sally and Tom (The American Way) and Stealin’ Home.
The years on Greenwich Street also saw the birth of the Castillo canvass, with dedicated volunteers knocking on doors across the tri-state area to raise awareness and money, as well as a sprawling “street performance” production, with outreach and fundraising at tables all over the city. Some of the people we met at those tables and behind those doors went on to become significant champions and financial supporters. It was the support of business professionals who wanted to do more in addition to giving money that eventually led to the start of the Development School for Youth.
In 2000, Castillo launched our membership campaign, asking our loyal audiences and artists to help us continue to build Castillo and its reach by making an annual contribution. That membership base became an essential engine for Castillo’s growth, making its theatrical seasons possible.
By 2003, the community talent shows that Castillo had started in the ‘80s had grown up to become the non-profit All Stars Project, and built programming, support and an imperative to grow. That fall the All Stars opened its 42nd Street center for youth development, performance and activism – and Castillo had a new home in the heart of the theater district!
Castillo has grown into a recognized international hub for political theatre, and a multicultural home for Black theatre. In 2016, Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre began its residency at the All Stars center. In addition to the NFT, Castillo is currently partnering with Primitive Grace Theatre Ensemble, and will be co-producing their “Opera for Kids” program with the New York City Opera.
Castillo’s membership base, its artistic and producing partnerships and its volunteer staff continue to grow and – by displaying what’s possible when people come together from diverse backgrounds to create a new kind of culture – have a significant impact on the broader culture of New York City. Together we are creating theatre for the whole city.
-Diane Stiles, Vice President/Programs, ASP of NY