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Date posted or updated: July 17, 2002

Spotlight on Queens
by Katrina Shakarian
photos by Reuben Quansah


As soon as you enter the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, you’re overwhelmed by a wave of Black culture. Located in Jamaica, Queens, the non-profit institution provides a wide range of cultural, educational, recreational and social programs to all those looking to find or strengthen their ties with African culture.
The Afrikan Poetry Theatre Inc., was founded 26 years ago by John Watusi Branch, the current executive director, and the late Yusef Waliyaya, as an ensemble of poets. Once the theatre moved from its original location on Merrick Boulevard to its current location on Jamaica Avenue, its role began to encompass more than just poetry. Branch and Waliyaya began focusing on the youth; empowering them with knowledge, culture and opportunity.
John Watusi Branch, one of the founders, is a great strength to the theatre. He is an outspoken and cultured individual dedicated to the theatre and its mission; empowering the people. He is the author of several books, including, "Through the door of no return," and "Journey to the Motherland," both dealing with Africa. He admits that starting up the Afrikan Poetry Theatre Inc. wasn't easy and funding was almost non-existent, as is the situation with most non-profit organizations. "Funding? What funding? There was no funding…it started slow, it was built on volunteerism." Well, a slow start gave way to an ever-flourishing establishment. Branch feels that an important message to send to youth as a whole is to "Know thyself." He emphasizes the significance of staying true to your roots and valuing education.
Administrative assistant Byron Perry, describes the Afrikan Poetry Theatre Inc, as " Multi-Purposed," because of the diverse range of programs it has come to offer the community. "There's no question about the difference we've made in the community, says Branch. The theatre is known for holding the first Kwanzaa celebration in Queens. It has also left its mark on the lecture circuit by having many distinguished African-American scholars speak at the theatre. Joann Evans has just started working at the theatre. She feels the theatre is an asset to the community, " its great, it has a lot to offer the children."
The theatre's motto is, " The power of the word," and they undoubtedly practice it by empowering those who are involved with knowledge, confidence, and a strong link to their African heritage. The walls are filled with pictures of people who have been involved with the theatre in the past and present. Several African masks adorn one wall, while another is filled with fliers promoting many different cultural events. It's impossible to walk through the establishment without feeling the vibe of African pride.
In the past as well as the present, the theatre has offered a wide range of activities: language classes, rights of passage, drama, open-mics, lectures, craft-making, music, dance and martial arts, just to name a few. In the mid-80's group trips to Africa were also added to the list. During the summer months many day camps come through the theatre for cultural workshops like storytelling. Walk-ins are welcomed for a nominal fee of five dollars. The theatre is part of the Youth employment program. The program finds jobs for New York City youth. Seventeen-year old Joseph Whenzle is one of the many working at the theatre through the youth employment program. He is a native of West Africa and has been in the U.S. for little over a year. Whenzle attends Campus Magnet High School in Queens. " I think the theatre is really good," said Whenzle.
The name, Afrikan Poetry Theatre Inc., is somewhat deceiving because the institution is more than poetry. It is a resource center, or as Branch would say, it is a " Community University," providing people with a place to learn, discuss, and question society. So if you're ever in Queens, check out the Afrikan Poetry Theatre Inc. It's located at 176-03 Jamaica Ave, a few minutes away from the last stop on the F train (179 street).

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