The new location of Lower Bottom Playaz theatre troupe at 1540 Broadway Avenue in Downtown Oakland on July 21, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

A storefront at 1540 Broadway in downtown Oakland last occupied by the theatre company Piano Fight—shuttered in March—will soon have a new tenant. 

The Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation (BAMBD CDC) announced in a press release Thursday that it is the new leaseholder. Founded by Oakland Poet Laureate and West Oakland playwright Ayodele Nzinga in 2016, BAMBD CDC aims to foster and grow the Black arts community in Oakland. 

“I founded BAMBD CDC to prevent further displacement of artists of color who at one time permeated West Oakland,” Nzinga stated in the press release. “The acquisition of this space is a crucial move to preserve art-making space in the Black Arts district and to sustain Oakland’s oldest black theater company.” 

Nzinga is also the founder of the Lower Bottom Playaz, a theatre troupe formed in 1999 whose productions showcase each of the 10 plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle. Wilson was an American playwright whose celebrated works chronicle the Black experience throughout the 20th century. One of his plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was adapted for film in 2020 and received critical acclaim.

This won’t be the first time that The Lower Bottom Playaz has occupied the storefront on Broadway. The troupe had performed there since 2014 and continued to do so up until Piano Fight closed this past spring. Now that BAMBD holds the lease, however, it’s assured to have a home for at least the next three years. 

Nzinga created the development corporation in 2016 after the Oakland City Council designated downtown’s 14th Street corridor, which stretches from Oak Street to Frontage Road, as the city’s official Black Arts Movement And Business District. 

“We have always asked, now that there’s a district, what is the amount of square footage that will be dedicated to the making [and preservation] of culture?” Nzinga told The Oaklandside. 

“Oakland elected and appointed officials pay good lip service to the importance of art in the cultural fabric of Oakland. [But] they have consistently failed to make a substantive investment in ensuring that art—particularly Black art—has sufficient places to thrive,” she added in her statement.

Two Black cultural hubs, the African American Museum and Library, and the Malonga Arts Collective, are currently located on the 14th Street corridor. The cultural district’s footprint will increase now as a result of BAMBDCDC taking over the storefront lease on Broadway.

The space will have a soft opening later this summer during BAMBD Fest, a multi-venue festival celebrating the Black cultural district happening Aug. 1 through Sept. 1. The Lower Bottom Playaz will also be performing August Wilson’s Radio Golf at the space every weekend starting on Aug. 10. An official ribbon cutting, Nzinga said, is being planned for the end of August. 

When the space was being leased by Piano Fight, Oakland School for the Arts also held its drama classes there. Nzinga said BAMBD CDC is in conversations with the school to keep the classes going. 

Nzinga is also looking to partner with other Black and brown-led organizations to bring ongoing cultural programming to the space once it officially opens.

“We started BAMBD CDC because we were worried about being displaced from Oakland as artists; this is the first substantive fruit,” she said. “BAMBD CDC has negotiated Community Benefits Agreements in private developers’ spaces. But none of that has led to us being able to stabilize artists as directly as this endeavor will.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.