Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Durham arts”

One year into NorthStar’s quest to grow spirituality and community with art

All who entered NorthStar Church of the Arts one night last month passed an artist’s rendering of Colin Kaepernick. A halo-like shape circled the activist quarterback’s head; a rope noose hung around his neck. Nearby was a mixed-media image of a crying woman with a slave ship nestled in her hair. 

At the launch of the newest issue of Southern Cultures, a Center for the Study of the American South quarterly, every seat and slab of wall was full. 

The following night the doors opened to the scent of generously buttered popcorn and squeals of small children running at top speed. The room was not pushing capacity, but a bright energy surged for a Dolly Parton birthday party. NorthStar had four hours blocked off for Dolly trivia and a “9 to 5” screening. 

NorthStar Church of the Arts is a venue housed in a Gothic Revival former church near Durham’s Central Park. Phil and Nnenna Freelon, accomplished in architecture and jazz respectively, founded it to be a “sacred space” where arts and the spiritual connect.

Dolly Parton is a saint on a candle displayed during her birthday celebration at NorthStar Church of the Arts. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

“We are trying to bridge the gap between what religion and art does for people. I feel called as an artist to pick up the slack that religion is dropping the ball on,” said Kamara Thomas, a member of NorthStar’s board.

Nearly one year after its official launch, NorthStar is forging its identity. An arts venue to showcase local minority artists first and foremost, it sometimes invites people in to bop to “Jolene.”

“NorthStar is very much a product of Durham. Durham is a creative queer, black, diverse, multicultural, intergenerational, historic city, and NorthStar is also all those things,” said Pierce Freelon, son of the founders and NorthStar’s artistic director. 

Heather Cook, a good friend of Pierce Freelon’s, had attempted to acquire the NorthStar building. But the Freelons got there first not knowing that Cook, active in arts programming for years, had her eye on it. Now she is NorthStar’s executive director. 

In 2019, more than 5,000 people attended 102 NorthStar events, generating $18,000 in ticket sales, according to numbers shared by NorthStar. Dollars are important because a primary goal is to raise money to pay local artists, Cook said. 

The venue’s website poses questions, including, “What if church was a place where artists were praised and poets were prophets?” In step with that, NorthStar hosts poets like Jaki Shelton Green and Dasan Ahanu, as well as organizations such as SpiritHouse, a longtime black-women led cultural group that supports people contending with racism, poverty and more. 

Heather Cook, NorthStar’s executive director, in her office. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

NorthStar also opens its doors to help people in crisis. After the Durham Housing Authority evacuated hundreds of families from unsafe McDougald Terrace last month, NorthStar became a meeting spot for volunteers trying to help displaced public housing residents and a drop-off point for food and clothing donations. 

NorthStar’s vision is guided by Durham icons like civil rights pioneer Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to become an Episcopalian priest, and  Baba Chuck Davis, the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble. Both pushed the bounds of societal and artistic norms, Pierce Freelon said. 

“NorthStar feels very much at home being outside of the box as a celebration and a manifestation of Durham’s diverse history and future,” said Freelon, a state Senate candidate this year. “We want to uplift different prophets  that may not fit within the construct of the biblical canon,” he said. 

Angela Lee, executive director of the Hayti Heritage Center, praises what’s happening at the corner of North and Geer streets. “Their mission and what it’s doing to help to promote culture in Durham is significant,” said Lee, who runs Durham’s oldest and largest church-turned-hub for black culture. 

In year one, NorthStar had a different celebrant delivering a monthly “Sunday service” in the mornings. This year the black feminist couple Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Sangodare are NorthStar’s celebrants in residence. 

They will lead discussions of work by figures like Murray, who was also a poet, labor organizer, and activist lawyer, and Octavia Butler, the acclaimed science-fiction author. Their next service will be at 11 a.m. on Feb. 16. 

NorthStar announces its mission in many ways, including with posters. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

For all this momentum, NorthStar is still developing. It relies deeply on volunteers since Cook is the only employee  member. In 2020, a major goal is to hire more, Cook said.

Like all houses of worship, NorthStar is a place to confront grief as well as joy. Phil Freelon, known building designs across the United States, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, died in July. After his funeral, the Freelon family held a reception at NorthStar.

After Freelon’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), his family made clear he had hoped others would  help his family support NorthStar.

Instead of sending flowers in sympathy, his family asked mourners to donate regularly to NorthStar “so that the same creative and spiritual energies that nurtured him throughout his life, may positively impact others, especially in his adopted home of Durham.”

At top: Charly Palmer’s mixed media piece “400 Years” was among the art displayed for last month’s launch of the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures. 9th Street Journal photo by Victoria Eavis

Correction: This story was corrected to state that Heather Cook is NorthStar Church’s of the Arts only employee.





Rebecca Newton to depart from a stronger Carolina Theatre

As Rebecca Newton prepares to end her short tenure leading the Carolina Theatre of Durham, she is satisfied with what she accomplished for the downtown landmark.

“I had three objectives when I joined. Lift the profile, raise a substantial amount of money and get more of the community involved,” Newton said.

The theater’s board of trustees announced last month that Newton will retire as president and CEO of the nonprofit that runs the theater in June 2020. In her two plus years in the position, she led the theater through one of its most successful periods in the 93 years since its conception, according to a board of trustees statement. 

“I’m not the right person to take it to the next level,” Newton said of her departure in an interview at her office. The theater needs a long term person, someone who can be out on stage giving every curtain speech. But at this stage of her career, she is not that person, she explained. 

Ellen Reckhow, a member of the board of trustees at CTD as well as a Durham County Commissioner for over 30 years, is adamant that there is no animosity between Newton and the theater’s trustees. The theater has had a substantial amount of administrative turnover in the last decade and would benefit from stability with a president and CEO who can stay put the position for “at least five years,” Reckhow said. 

Rebecca Newton is well known among many in Durham due to her long local music career. A talented instrumentalist and singer, she led the popular band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones for 30 years, all while maintaining a tech career in online safety. Newton released her first solo album Blue Shirt this summer. 

Carolina Theatre saw consistent and significant growth in many dimensions of programming under her leadership. Newton helped increase the number of children who visit the downtown landmark for student programming from 10,000 kids a year to 15,000. The theater also landed the two largest development grants in history totaling $188,000. Overall attendance also increased.

The theater has not always been the thriving venue it is today. Towards the end of 2015, it stared bankruptcy in the face due to a $1.7 million dollar deficit in part because of poor accounting practices. The theater eventually reached an out of court settlement with an accounting firm, according to a 2017 Durham Herald Sun report

Rebecca Newton explaining an exhibit on segregation that existed until the early 1960s at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis

Newton said she takes pride in her ability to “pull the trigger” on decisions that are necessary for the community. For instance, when Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was left in ruins by a recent hurricane, CTD put on a benefit concert Music Folk for Ocracoke on October 14th. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t make the money sometimes. It was the right thing to do,” she said. 

Newton’s focus on the community is tied to the fact that she is a Durham native. That, she said, was a huge factor in her success at CTD. Before almost every performer, Newton gives a short curtain speech. “I go out on that stage and people say, ‘Hey, there’s someone I know.’ It’s someone from your larger family taking care of something you love,” she said.

In a WUNC-FM interview earlier this year, Newton spoke about familial difficulties during her childhood. As CEO, she took the initiative to host a free viewing of the movie Resilience and a follow up forum all in order to create an accessible space to learn about adverse childhood experiences. 

Reckhow said that Newton’s legacy will be defined by this increased versatility of the theater’s offerings. Newton turned CTD into a space not only to be entertained, but to learn about new subjects,” Reckhow said. 

Carolina Theatre, a cultural hub long before the downtown Durham’s recent renaissance, has undergone a series of renovations over the years. One project built a wall around the third balcony, making it hard to imagine there were ever seats at that level. That was where people of color were forced to sit before the theater was desegregated in the early 1960s. 

Before she departs, Newton hopes to replace this yellow wall with glass, so people will have a window into the theater’s racialized past. There is already an exhibit on the segregation of the theater on the mezzanine level, but this would be more of an experiential display that forces patrons to confront exactly how people of color were once marginalized within the walls of the theater. 

Upon retiring from CTD, Newton hopes to keep bringing the local community together. Lighting up, Newton describes work with a partner to create “a sort of Durham City Limits that promotes local curated musicians… the ones who are on the cusp of going big time.”

Always the organizer, Newton has already rented performance space at the Carolina Theatre of Durham for some of these artists.

At top: Rebecca Newton inside the Carolina Theatre of Durham. Photo by Victoria Eavis