WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It’s well past business hours and Bob Carter, artistic director and president of West Palm’s Actor’s Workshop & Repertory Company is preparing the next generation of stage actors.
“The plays I do here are not Neil Simon, there are no feathers and sequins – the plays I do here are about the African-American experience, the Jewish experience – and the ramifications,” said Carter.
Across town, Everee Jimerson Clarke, historian and activist is on deadline to publish her second book on the first black settlers to arrive to West Palm Beach.
“To extend the railroad,” said Clarke. “I have so much knowledge to impart to the public and especially our young people.”
But this is now. Rewind to a time when the Chitlin’ Circuit was alive and well in the Jim Crow South and Clarke and Carter could be rubbing shoulders at the Sunset Lounge. The largest black establishment in town.
“Do I remember it? Sure, I remember it,” said Carter. “I didn’t look like I belonged there. But boy, what music.”
“It was the place to go,” added Clarke.
To see Duke Ellington, Count Bassie, Ella Fitzgerald and a long list of other top black performers in jazz, rhythm and soul. But attendees also knew there were strict social rules both in and outside the building.
“If my family knew I was there that would be it. Certainly I couldn’t tell my friends at school that I was there,” said Carter.
But he says the music and a taboo friendship with a Black teen related to someone who worked at the lounge kept him coming back.
“We could not be seen together after dark. He could not be on my side of town and if i was on his side of town I’d probably get stopped,” Carter said.
He adds the experience is why he directs “true-to-life” subject matter at the repertory. And promotes diverse representation amongst stage talent.
”You’ve got to be careful what you think. And that’s how prejudice comes about,” said Carter.
For Clarke, the Sunset Lounge site fueled a passion for writing about being “high class and colored” pre-Civil Rights era.
“They’re missing that. And who else is going to tell it,” said Clarke.
Two different passions – sparked by what the Sunset Lounge stood for in terms of civil rights and race relations.
“Our surroundings are so important because they become a part of us and we become a part of them,” Carter said. ““The Sunset Lounge was a life changing experience for me. It changed my life. And set me on a totally different course.”
Purchased in 2015 by the City of West Palm Beach and set to reopen in late 2021, officials want to revamp the site’s appearance and launch the first-ever Cultural Tourism Program. Joining top cultural tourist destinations alongside places like Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis.
It begins with a $12 million improvement investment that starts with the Sunset Lounge. Additional investments by the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency will also include developing the Heart and Soul Park across from the Sunset Lounge, adding new business opportunities in historic replica homes, and upgrades to places in the Historic Northwest with significant importance.
“There is a lot of work to do outside of just the Sunset Lounge in this community and it’s about bringing this community back to being prosperous,” said Allison Justice, interim director of West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency.
“It will function as a modern community space and center for musical acts, and also operate as full restaurant and bar,” added Genia Baker, project manager for West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. “There is also the possibility of a community radio station to broadcast performances live.”
It’s years of historic rehabilitation to the main site and a 7,000 square-foot community space addition awarded to a Black construction management firm.
“It means the legacy of the great legacy of the African-Americans who have come before us, said Veronica Cooper, vice-president of Cooper Construction Management and Consulting. “We’re just bringing those drawings to life,” she added.