When driving past the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement at 920 Peralta St. in West Oakland, few would realize that the center’s backyard features a performance theater capable of seating well over 100 people.< p>The Sister Thea Bowman Theater is also home to the Lower Bottom Playaz, an intergenerational acting group and one of the oldest Black theater troupes in Oakland.
The troupe has been performing since 1999 and moved to the Sister Thea Bowman Theater two years later when construction in the backyard was finished.
“People wonder is it a real theater if it’s in the back yard? Of course it is – we’ve provided theater seasons in West Oakland for over a decade.” said Ayodele Nzinga, founder and director of the Lower Bottom Playaz.
“Our name is comes from The Lower Bottoms, also known as The Village Bottoms, a destination point in various migrations of North American Africans.”
Over the course of 12 years, Nzinga has helped train and mentor several young African American residents in performance and theater art. Nzinga also teaches a free summer theater day camp for elementary and middle schoolers.
The troupe got its start performing everywhere from homeless shelters and parking lots to prisons, where it gained popularity for its adaptations of William Shakespeare, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry.
“I wanted to take famous plays like William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and make it relevant to the struggles our community is going through,” said Nzinga. “Romeo & Juliet became ‘Ebony and Johnny’ and Macbeth became ‘Mac (A Gangster’s Tale)’ set in the West Oakland neighborhood. There’s always a social justice element to our shows.
The locations of the famous works were changed to a West Oakland setting as a way of increasing social awareness on community concerns and topics including gangs, organized religion, the healthcare system, and gentrification.
The troupe has a core membership of 10 with 40 contributing actors. Among them, Stan Huts and Koran Streets have emerged as recent breakout stars from the 2013 coming-of-age film “Licks” directed by Jonathan Singer-Vine.
Koran Streets, 23, remembers when he started acting at age 12 and was cast in Romeo and Juliet alongside his brother Huts.
“It was opening night and I was halfway through my monologue in the first scene of the play when my phone went off blasting the Crime Mob song ‘Knuck if you Buck,’” said Streets. “The audience started cracking up. I was embarrassed so I walked off the stage.”
He shakes his head laughing to himself and says that experience helped him get over stage fright and become a better actor. Aside from acting, Streets has gained a following for his music, releasing rap mixtapes such as “You Know I Got It, Vol.2” to local critical acclaim.
“There’s so many things that can lead you down a negative path in life, and Lower Bottom Playaz gives kids motivation to stop from getting involved in street life and towards something positive,” said Streets. “I don’t know where I would if I wasn’t acting and doing music.”
Nzinga says that funding for the Lower Bottom Playaz is running out, and the group is looking for financial support to keep productions going and their actors paid.
“Many former members of the troupe have come up to me through different walks of life and told me about the impact Lower Bottom Playaz had on them,” said Nzinga. “As a community theater troupe, we’ve provided opportunities for many of the young Black males in this city, and that’s something we can’t afford to lose.”