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How A Historic Theater Is Using Band Camp To Revitalize Overtown

Wilson Sayre

For the past few decades, Miami’s historically black Overtown neighborhood has struggled with crime and poverty. Sharing in that decline was the Lyric Theater, where figures like Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie and Celia Cruz once graced its stage.

The old theater, though, has a new vision and through kids programming, hopes to change the image of Overtown emblazoned in the not-too-distant memory of South Floridians.

The inaugural South Florida Marching Band Precision Camp brought together 160 kids, most from South Florida, who, by the end of the week learned how to move together in synchronized patterns, weaving around each other, dancing, all the while, playing music from memory.

“It’s too fast,” 16-year-old piccolo-player Asia Solomon jokes of the dancing. “It’s like hit to the left, and hit it to the right and then like scoop-scoop, down up and then like dropping.”

The dancing, she says, was a lot harder than she was used to at Northwestern Senior High.

Solomon and the rest of the campers practice marching at Gibson Park in the shadows of I-95, the very structure that fragmented the community when it was built through the middle of Overtown in the 1960s. Many residents moved away and the community still has not recovered.

The campers got away from the hot afternoon sun during instrumental practice inside the Lyric Theater.

“The Lyric is the center of culture and arts,” says Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives. “We definitely wanted to bring attention and recreate that music in Overtown, that beat of the drum that pulse that Overtown has had over the many years.”

Barber wants to harness some of the cultural cache that events like Art Basel and Wynwood art walk have brought to other neighborhoods near Overtown and offer the neighborhood's own variety of the arts.

He also has a longer-term vision for the Lyric Theater, though, and kids are a big focus.

Kamila Pritchett is director of development for the Black Archives who helped organize the band camp.

“To have these kids be able to come and practice and perform on a historic stage, walk the streets of a historic neighborhood, its kind of like we’re tricking them into also participating in a basic living tour of historic Overtown,” Pritchett says.

Tricking kids, many of whom have heard of or seen coverage of Overtown’s troubles over the years, to see that the neighborhood has something to add to Miami.

“A lot of them have been like 'wow it's not what I saw on TV,'” Barber recalls, “and that's what we want to do. We want to make sure that the kids, one, see the Lyric as a place to be and two, see the community of Overtown as a strong community.”

Asia Solomon is one of Barber’s converts. She grew up thinking Overtown was dead and now hopes the band camp happens next year so she can attend.

And maybe not just for band camp, hopes Barber and the other organizers of the camp, but for an art show or performance at the Lyric. Maybe even to perform herself at the monthly variety show Lyric Live, anything, as long as it’s in Overtown.

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