There’s a firehouse in Harlem that isn’t what it seems to be. Brick, glass, and wrought iron of this once-abandoned structure are filled with music, poetry, singing, and dancing. The Faison Firehouse Theater (faisonfirehouse.org) is the brainchild of George Faison, famed choreographer of the Broadway hit "The Wiz".
"I look at the firehouse as a flower in the desert," said George Faison. "An incubator as well as a disseminator of talent."
Faison originally studied dentistry at Howard University in 1964, but a performance by the Alvin Ailey Company inspired him to leave Howard for New York City in 1966. Within a year he was dancing with Lauren Bacall on a television special. In 1969, he joined the very same Alvin Ailey Company that had inspired him. He began choreographing on Broadway with "Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope" in 1972, then in 1974, choreographed "The Wiz", the all-black retelling of the Wizard of Oz that was later adapted into a star-studded movie. Since then, he has been awarded Tony’s and even an Emmy for the HBO special "The Josephine Baker Story" starring actress Lynn Whitfield.
The last decade has been spent transforming the decommissioned firehouse at 6 Hancock Place into a fully functional community theater, passing on the dream of stage to a new generation. "The firehouse is digitally equipped so I’m trying to stretch that envelope," explained Faison. "The highest digital entertainment and the most incredible talent. The only way that I feel I can make it really explode is through the things that technology offers us."
His Faison Firehouse Respect Project takes issues that are real concerns for the young performers and brings them into the theater for exploration. Issues such as teen pregnancy, absent parents, rape, racism, poverty, illiteracy, identity, gangs, and violence become fodder for productions to raise awareness and understanding. They travel with their message to schools, juvenile detention centers, and anywhere else they can empower young minds to choose a positive path in their life. At its core, the Faison Firehouse Respect Project was birthed from the work of Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard. Her work posits that singing and dancing, coupled with morality messages can effectively communicate to youth while bypassing their preconceived notions of the subjects. The project has been running for 12 years.
"I try to develop their voices, give them a voice or help them find their voice," he said. "There’s a lot we can learn from these young people by listening to them and allowing them to speak on some of the issues. And we will find that we are one voice on the things that affect us as human beings."
Through song and dance and spoken word, George Faison has created a haven for the arts in an unexpected place. Those students and performers will come and go, but they will keep the positivity, the ambition, and the memories with them for life. "We are rekindling the dreams that made Harlem a magnet for those coming to New York."