The way Watts locals remember it, the Watts Happening Coffee House was the place to be in the late ‘60s.
“It was hip,” said Harold Hambrick, a longtime Watts resident and witness to the 1965 Watts Riots. “Anyone who had any kind of creative ideas could come there.” Musicians, poets, and artists gathered at the space in the years following the Watts Riots, as did political activists, Hollywood actors and members of L.A.’s Black Panther Party.
In the nearly 50 years since the Watts Riots — or Watts Rebellion, as residents prefer to remember it — the coffee house sat dormant for decades, then reopened. It has hosted some performances in recent years, but not to the scale it once did.
Now, some community members hope to bring the arts scene back to the iconic cafe. With a grant from the California Arts Council, the Watts Village Theater Company has set out to refurbish the space, now called just the Watts Coffee House. For the first time ever, the company will stage a full length play called Follow in the cafe, starting tonight.
The Watts Happening Coffee House rose, literally, out of the ashes of the 1965 violence in Watts which left 34 dead and more than 3,000 arrested. 103rd Street became known as “Charcoal Alley.” Nearly everything on the street had burned.
“It was brought out of chaos,” said Rita Cofield, project manager of the Watts Village Theater Company’s beautification project. “It was an incubator for all of these creative things in the community.”
The Watts Rebellion was a six-day struggle in response to the arrest of a 21-year-old black man by a white CHP officer, the largest civil unrest in L.A. history at its time. In the years afterwards, artists and activists transformed the Watts Happening Coffee House into base camp for civil rights efforts. Donations flowed into Watts from government agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Hollywood names like Budd Schulberg and Roger Mosley, giving rise to organizations like the Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts and the Mafundi Institute — all promising creative expression for survivors of the Rebellion.
But within a decade, donations slowed, public memory of the Watts Rebellion waned, and the coffee house and many of the organizations formed there closed.
“At that time the Leimert Park area, the Inglewood area, other areas sprung up for entertainment,” Hambrick said. “Folks started to move away from Watts.”
But the ‘90s brought new hope. Hambrick, president of the Black Business Expo, and a longtime champion of the Watts community, saw an opportunity for a restaurant in the building across the street from the original Watts Happening Coffee House. He tapped Desiree Edwards, a local caterer, to take on the project. Edwards opened the new Watts Coffee House in 1997. Around the same time, an effort to revive the Mafundi Institute — a performing arts academy — was taking place in the same building.
Hambrick and Edwards lined the walls of the cafe with photos and posters from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Edwards said she still sees customers coming in who light up, recalling those days of arts and activism in Watts.
The Mafundi building now houses the Watts Coffee House, a charter high school, and an auditorium, where the Watts Village Theater Company has staged a few plays. But the company has never performed in the coffee house’s space before.
Before the building could host the company's Follow, Michael Patrick Spillers' work about a modern family in conflict over their gay son wanting to marry his boyfriend, it needed some updates. With a $30,000 grant and an Indiegogo campaign, the theater company set out in August to beautify the space.
Cofield, a Watts native with training in historical preservation, said her main idea was to enhance what’s there. “My thing was to not destroy anything.” she said.
Cofield said the project will make the entryway to the Mafundi building cleaner and brighter. She’ll also include splashes of color and design inspirations from the ‘60s and ‘70s, paying homage to the neighborhood’s history.
Edwards was happy to have the theater company take on the project in her cafe. “You can never disagree with making something better,” she said. “I love what I see — the beautification project uplifts the community.”
In addition to cosmetic improvements, the project will include some practical updates like installing better lighting in the parking lot. The hope is to make the space more inviting to visit in the evening, and perhaps to inspire more arts groups to consider it as a nighttime performance venue.
Watts Village Theater Company artistic director Lynn Manning said he hopes his organization can host shows in the space again in the future, but that’s not the main goal of their renovation.
“There may be other community artists who would find it attractive and we wouldn't feel like they were encroaching on our territory,” he said. “It's about bringing the arts back to that structure, where it was originally intended to be.”
Hambrick died at age 71 on Oct. 8, shortly after being interviewed for this story. He said he observed a bit of a “generation gap” between Watts old timers and the community’s young people.
“Young people come into the coffee house, they see these old pictures on the wall. All these artists and musicians and everything are represented,” Hambrick said. “We want to remind them from whence thou comest.”
“Follow” by Michael Patrick Spillers, directed by Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, runs through Nov. 16 at the Watts Coffee House 1827 E. 103 St., Watts. More info at groupspaces.com/WattsVillageTheaterCompany/item/676577.
Katherine Davis-Young on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: