The space is sparse. Bare white particle-board walls, a couple of blue rugs on a concrete floor and a shoe repair store across the hall.
But the storefront in Military Circle Mall is a place for Mosaic Steel Orchestra to call home and continue its classes and performances.
The show goes on.
On a Wednesday afternoon, eight amateur steel pan players are working their way through Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love with You” in Anthony Hailey’s senior citizens class. A few get tripped up by the sequencing .
“Once I get it painted, I’ll have a dry erase board,” to put up notes everyone in class can see, Hailey told them.
It’s a far cry from the lush, historic and renovated Attucks Theater, which the group was locked out of last fall along with the other arts groups using it by the city.
After the third time through the tune, Sarah Murphy says her hands are going numb. Murphy has been playing steel drums since 1994, and the last few years with Mosaic. She recalled the day in November when Hailey and his class were left standing in the parking lot outside the Attucks.
“We showed up for class that day and couldn’t get in the building,” Murphy said.
The group, a nonprofit that seeks to give youth in underserved communities a musical outlet, spent about two weeks without a home before it found the space at Military Circle Mall.
“It was really jeopardizing the stability of not just our Norfolk operations but the after-school operations in Newport News and Portsmouth as well,” said Hailey, the group’s founder.
His bitter fight with the city to stay at the historic theater where Mosaic had been headquartered for a decade got the attention of Norfolk CPA Martin Einhorn. who was willing to cover the group’s rent at Military Circle.
“All of that happened for a reason,” Hailey said.
And for Hailey, the end result couldn’t have been better: since leaving the Attucks, Mosaic’s youth class enrollment is up 25 percent, he said.
“It dawned on me that being in the Attucks was actually a disservice to the organization in our visibility,” Hailey said. “As soon as you come in the mall, we’re one of the first doors you come to.”
Hailey said they’ve gotten plenty of walk-ups curious about the steel drums. They’ve now signed up so many students that even with additional instruments to make classes larger, they are having to add another class on Saturdays to deal with the overflow.
Sitting in the back office of the new space while his students work out an arrangement of “Fur Elise,” Hailey still expresses mixed feelings about the departure from the Attucks. On the one hand, it’s boosted visibility and attendance, but Hailey laments what he says could be the loss of an important cultural legacy.
“It’s got a long history of great African-American performers. I can feel that energy when I go on that stage, and it needs to be transferred to the next generations,” Hailey said.
Mosaic has been back at the theater a couple of times since they were locked out in November, playing a leukemia benefit show in February and helping to run the music portion of a camp program for several weeks this summer.
Frustration eeks through when Hailey talks about returning.
“That’s really a shame because, outside the concerts they have, it sits empty,” Hailey said. “It’s in the community and there’s no community use.”
Following the departure of the umbrella arts organization that had brought nonprofit groups like Mosaic into the Attucks, the city said the group could stay but would have to pay roughly $60,000 per year for rent, utilities and staff costs for security.
He worries that things like the redevelopment of the St. Paul’s area will change the face of the neighborhood, gentrifying it and leaving the Attucks’ legacy behind.
For Mosaic, the location has changed but the mission is the same. Hailey said he’s focused on trying to get out into the Poplar Hall community and expand the group’s educational offerings.
“You go through some adversity,” Hailey said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Ryan Murphy, 757-446-2299, firstname.lastname@example.org
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