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Watts' Mafundi Institute Stars in Its Own Revival

Arts: The cultural academy, which was the center of a renaissance that flourished after the 1965 riots, has again become a place for 'people expressing themselves.'

October 24, 1997|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two decades after musicians and actors took their final bow at Watts' Mafundi Institute, the fading imprint of the cultural academy's logo clung stubbornly to its front wall.

As city projects and small businesses moved into the building after 1975, whitewashing failed to smother the mural of proud African faces. And, for many locals, the Mafundi symbol continued to evoke memories of a renaissance that flourished after the 1965 riots.

"Every time [new owners] tried to paint the Mafundi logo out, it would bleed through," said Watts native Cecil Fergerson, a former curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "The Mafundi was meant to stay here. And that's why it's back."

Back is the colorful glory of the Mafundi logo, repainted last month by Elliott Pinkney, its original artist.

Back, too, are some of the community events that once offered young African Americans a chance to work onstage, including Marla Gibbs (who went on to star in "The Jeffersons" and "227") and Roger Mosley ("Magnum, P.I.").

In August, Mafundi raised the curtain for its first play in 22 years. And once a month, spectators swing to the rhythms of jazz and blues concerts in a recently redecorated auditorium.

Dance, drama and poetry classes for local youngsters are being planned, possibly to start in December. And, with the Mafundi now home to the Watts Coffee House, artists are once again returning to while away afternoons sipping java and discussing their work.

*

For years, though, the boxy stucco building at Wilmington Avenue and 103rd Street displayed little of the spirit of Mafundi, which means "artisans" or "creative people" in Swahili.

The stage was empty, the classrooms used as office space. The building's landlord, a local social services agency, rented space to real estate agents, a handful of city agencies and the Watts United Credit Union.

But Harold Hambrick, vice president of public affairs at Watts Health Systems, envisioned the resurrection of the old cultural academy.

Hambrick remembers weekends spent in the dimly lit Watts Happening Coffee House during the late '60s, watching the first Mafundi plays and concerts through thick clouds of smoke.

The desire to re-create that scene, albeit smoke-free, has been the driving force behind a group spearheaded by Hambrick.

"We wanted to connect the past with the present," Hambrick said.

When Watts Health Systems took over management of the building housing Mafundi in 1996, Hambrick seized the opportunity to make that connection.

First, he went to his agency's management to win support for restoring the old community center. Then he coaxed the city into helping refurbish the building. Meanwhile, others rallied to his cause: Fergerson, Quentin Drew, a local actor, and the Watts Prophets, a pioneering jazz-rap group.

*

One year after the Mafundi's revival began, the connection between past and present was complete.

As if to prove the point, musicians who played and sang free at the original Mafundi returned last month to perform at the Third World Arts Exhibition.

Among them was jazz pianist Horace Tapscott, whose Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra played at the building's groundbreaking in 1970. Also returning were the Watts Prophets, a group many credit with the invention of rap.

Otis O'Solomon, Amde Hamilton and Richard Dedeaux met and formed the Prophets after the 1965 riots, when Watts was fast becoming a focus of African American culture.

"The atmosphere was, 'I'm black and I'm proud,' " recalled Hamilton. "It was like being a college freshman, full of expectation . . . people were expressing themselves."

Artists were also expressing the frustrations and hopes of a community.

*

While the McCone Commission was investigating the social injustices at the root of the rioting, black poets were writing about them, black musicians were singing about them, black artists were painting them.

At the center of the renaissance lay the Watts Happening Coffee House. And it was there in 1967 that a group of writers, dancers, film-makers and actors created the Mafundi Institute.

The first performances were held at the coffeehouse. But as the Mafundi grew in size and ambition, more and more space was needed. When the coffeehouse ran out of money, the Mafundi won city and federal grants for a new home to be built where it stands today.

Working in the sparsely furnished building, students put together a number of critically acclaimed short movies and plays. Early successes drew attention that attracted donations from Hollywood's great and good, many of whom came to speak or teach at the institute.

But as the riots became a distant memory, the flow of donations dried up. By 1973, when Gibbs was rehearsing for amateur plays at the Mafundi, few of the institute's classes were still being offered. Instead, Mosley, the institute's most senior student, taught and directed his colleagues.

"There were a lot of things we didn't have, but we didn't care," Gibbs recalled. "We thought that Hollywood should come down here and see us and get us. We thought we had the best workshop there was."

But donations continued to dwindle. And, in the mid-1970s, the Mafundi dropped its curtain for the last time, leaving behind only its mural and the dreams of those who remembered it.

Until now.

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