Philadelphia’s Karl Jenkins Rolls the Dice (Raw) and Takes Over Freedom Theatre.
Here’s a great way to start Black History Month. Coming up on its 55th year of operating as Philadelphia’s premiere all Black theater, North Broad Street’s Freedom Theatre (alternately known as the New Freedom Theatre) is due for some sprucing. Especially when you consider that its longtime Executive Producing Director, Sandra Norris Haughton, left her valued post in August 2020. And that’s its figurehead Walter Dallas, the legendary artistic director of the Freedom Theatre, died in May of last year. Enter Karl Jenkins. Also known as Dice Raw.
Some of you know him from his occasional raps with his family in The Roots. He was still in high school when Black Thought and Kelo brought Karl into their circle. Fond as they were of his hardcore raps and punishing flow, The Roots pushed Dice Raw to make his debut on “The Lesson, Pt. 1,” then guest features on the likes of “Episodes” and “Adrenaline”, and so on.
Here’s Dice Raw’s tally with The Roots, so far.
“The Lesson, Pt. 1” on Do You Want More?!!!??!
“Clones” and “Episodes” on Illadelph Halflife
“Adrenaline!”, “Diedre vs. Dice”, “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’ New” and “Don’t See Us” on Things Fall Apart
“Rhymes & Ammo” on Phrenology
“BOOM!” on The Tipping Point
“The Lesson, Pt. 3” on Home Grown! The Beginner’s Guide To Understanding The Roots, Vol. 2
“Here I Come” on Game Theory
“Get Busy”, “I Can’t Help It”, “I Will Not Apologize” and “The Grand Return” on Rising Down
“How I Got Over”, “Walk Alone”, “Radio Daze” and “Now or Never” on How I Got Over
“Make My”, “One Time”, “Lighthouse”, and “Tip The Scale” on Undun
“Black Rock,” “Understand”, and “The Dark (Trinity)” on And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
Lest you forget, there’s a roughhouse Dice Raw solo debut album in Reclaiming the Dead on MCA Records from 2000. To say nothing of 2013’s Jimmy’s Back and 2018’s The Narrative.
Dice Raw AKA Karl Jenkins, however, began to shift his emphasis in 2012/2013 to something more literally and literarily theatrical with a second career as a stage actor, as well as a playwright. And producer with socially conscious and politically astute self-penned shows such as “The Last Jimmy” and “Henry Box Brown: A Hip Hop Musical.” Both of which made their Philadelphia debuts at Freedom Theatre.
“Freedom Theatre has been my focus for a while. And, now I’m proud to say that through a career switch that’s interesting all on its own, I’ve taken over as its new CEO,” said Jenkins. “I have been working there since 2013. Through the legendary flood of 2018 when a burst pipe meant that I had to move my “Henry Box Brown” to Bonnell Auditorium at Community College of Philadelphia. After the flood, my interest was sparked in seeing what was going on with Freedom and making more of an impact. How I could help.”
Karl Jenkins started as a board member at Freedom with the late, great Bryan Dilworth. And carried on in his memory, while bringing other illustrious Philly arts name to Freedom’s board room, such as award-winning choreographer/hip hop innovator Rennie Harris. “I walked him through Freedom and gave him a guilt trip about not being more involved,” said Jenkins of Harris.
The more Jenkins did, the more Jenkins wanted to do. Which is how we wind up with Jenkins as CEO. He’s not the producing artistic director, yet. Instead, he’s currently building up the website, producing in-house events and acting as an overall presenter of artists creating their own work. A pared-down schedule due to the pandemic.
Currently, Karl Jenkins, Orlando Edwards and Keith Ruffin have taken on the lion’s share of the presented work, with a streaming platform, mostly for educational presentations, with additional writers digitally coming on regularly.
A larger scale, audience-focused public platform is on its way. As well as a team of performing arts professionals (“people with 30 years’ experience or more”), as part of Freedom’s new staff. And a bolder, more interactive Freedom Theatre website and new online store launching by mid-February. You can also find out about Jenkins’ new “Project Steampipe” which will preview new Freedom theatrical presentations.
“I’m here to restore Freedom Theatre to the glories of its heyday. To what John Allen and Bob Leslie did. To the 60s and 70s of Walter Dallas, then Sandra Horton. I’ve got big shoes to fill. And new ideas to fill them with, a new perspective on how to get that done.”
To that end, Jenkins has created promotional and shared partnerships between Freedom and the Annenberg Theater in West Philly. And with Mural Arts who are set to craft interchangeable mural panels for the front and back of the North Broad Street property over a five-year period.
“As far as second careers go, Freedom Theatre is keeping me real busy,” he said with a laugh. “And as far as bringing Freedom back to its former glory while maintaining Dice Raw’s signature comes down to my background. I don’t think or do typical theater things. I have a lot of support from artists I’ve worked with over the years. Which are many and diverse. Coming from a hip-hop background, I don’t come up with the usual. A mix of new ideas but old stable ideas from what Freedom’s foundation was built will get us through. And get us over. It’s a heavy lift, for me and the new team. And some of the old team, too. But, we got this.”