Charlayne Henry was overcome with emotion when she opened the doors to the Charles A. Stewart Performing Arts Center. She realized the struggles and losses she had overcome to finally own and operate her own theater.
“This has been a long seven-year journey. I put myself through a lot these past seven years. My husband passed away last November and my mom passed away four years ago. This past January I lost my grand-dad. I’ve lost so many people who won’t get to see this theater come to fruition. That‘s the hardest part of going after your vision,” Henry said.
CHARLAYNE HENRY IN HER NEW ARTS CENTER (Photo by Erin Perry).
Henry’s vision is coming alive at 575 Fifth St. in Pitcairn. She is in the process of converting an old church into a 200-seat theater.
The prolific writer, actress, producer and director spent a year acquiring and renovating the building. She also purchased the house next door, which she now lives in.
She moved her operation from a 60-seat theater in Duquesne to the current facility in Pitcairn.
“I chose Pitcairn because there is nothing in Pitcairn and it is 30 percent Black and I thought having the theater here would be a good way for me to minister to the Black families. I’m using this as an opportunity to reach out to a community that has nothing for them,” Henry said.
In addition to buying the theater and the home next door, Henry created the Pitcairn African American Council so that minorities in Pitcairn could have a voice during the council meetings.
“I wanted to be involved in everything in Pitcairn,” Henry said. “I have to fight for the injustices and help the people who can’t fight for themselves.”
She moved into both residences July 1. She hired 10 men off the street to help with dry walling and other improvement projects. She paid them out of her own pocket.
“I was born and raised in the church and I was taught that my blessings come when I am giving. It’s not because I want to do stuff for people. I want to have a relationship with my God,” Henry said.
The result is a medium-sized theater with a small theater feel. The lobby of the theater has photos, memorabilia and biography information about Henry’s mentor, Charles A. Stewart.
Stewart was a veteran actor who joined the cast of “Momma I Want to Sing” in 1985 and toured the United States, Europe, Switzerland, Northern Africa, Japan and the Caribbean. He was in several other stage productions including “Your Arms too Short to Box with God.” He died on May 7, 2003.
“I learned the art of theater from him. He came all the way from New York numerous times to make sure that my work was cohesive and that everything was flowing, He was more than my mentor. He was my brother, spiritual advisor and my friend. He was always behind me and saw my vision for my own theater.”
Two short sets of steps on either side of the lobby takes theater-goers inside. Next to the theater is a store complete with concessions and wares for purchase.
The second floor features a box seating area and a special box area for Stewart’s family. It is also where the administrative offices are.
Henry plans to make the basement into a cafe and space for actors to prepare for her productions.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but knowing Charlayne it’ll be a piece of cake,” said chief financial officer and Henry’s best friend, Carolyn Smith.
“This is her passion. She really cares about people. Char tries really hard and she is really aggressive. She’s really talented and she’s going places.”
Henry held a weekend-long grand opening event Sept 24-26 at the theater to commemorate the occasion.
Friday’s event, which was replete with a wine and cheese reception, gave audience tours of the building throughout the night. Performances by local actors added a spark to the night.
On Saturday, Henry held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and Stewart’s wife and mother traveled from New York to share in the occasion.
A PowerPpoint presentation of Stewart’s life was shown and the family was given flowers and other goodies for their continued support of Henry’s vision.
“I had to honor his wife and I put the box in because I wanted his family or friends of theirs visiting Pittsburgh to always have a place to sit and enjoy the performances,” Henry said,
The event culminated with a praise and worship service and remarks by Henry and her staff.
The Charles A. Stewart Performing Arts Center will show several plays throughout the rest of the year.
The season will open with “Distorted Love,” a story of a family who puts work and career before each other. The play will run Oct. 28- 30. “Distorted Love” will then tour in Philadelphia, New York City and West Virginia.
Anyone looking for comic relief is encouraged to go see Christian comedian Lillian Cannon tape her DVD at the Charles A. Stewart Performing Arts Center Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.
The season will end with the powerful, “Serving the Children of Katrina.”
“An independent filmmaker will be showing a documentary about the plight of the children of Katrina who are still hungry and hurting,” Henry said.
(For more information, visit www.CHARLAYNEHENRY.com or call 412-858-4742.)