Arts & Culture News

What Will the Forest Theater Reopening Mean for South Dallas Residents?

The boarded-up exterior of the once glorious Forest Theater, which is making a comeback.
The boarded-up exterior of the once glorious Forest Theater, which is making a comeback. courtesy Forest Forward
Newly formed nonprofit Forest Forward announced Nov. 5 an initiative to reopen the Forest Theater by 2024, on the 75th anniversary of the historical landmark.

The community-focused initiative project is set to expand the space into a multi-purpose destination. The investment will include the creation of a creative laboratory — including a recording studio and sensory immersion room — a rejuvenated black box theater, roof deck, industrial kitchen and outdoor venue space.

The nonprofit's aim is for the theater to be symbolic of a healthy, thriving South Dallas.

“When people see Reunion Tower, it’s a landmark for Dallas, and for South Dallas, the Forest Theater sign is our landmark,” poet King Shakur, a South Dallas resident, says. “It being revitalized is like revitalizing an anchor that all neighborhoods need to turn things around.”

The Forest Theater, which once hosted music legends Tina Turner, Prince, Gladys Knight and B.B. King, has sat idle, boarded and chained for years. The tall green marquee reading “Forest” topped with a red ball was once a beacon that directed residents to Dallas’ mecca of cultural celebration, but its glory faded as the building decayed.

“It was really a sad occasion,” Donald Payton, a South Dallas resident, said in an Instagram video. “It's almost like watching a relative decline and there is nothing that you can do.”

The theater originally opened in 1949, but was segregated. As the construction of the S. M. Wright Freeway progressed, the white flight out of South Dallas propelled the theater to direct its attention to the Black community, which embraced the space as a community hub for art, entertainment and as a gathering for social initiatives.
click to enlarge The Forest Theater in its heyday, back in 1956. - COURTESY FOREST FORWARD
The Forest Theater in its heyday, back in 1956.
courtesy Forest Forward

“The Forest Theater put Dallas on the national map for entertainment. It was kind of like our version of Broadway,” Payton said in the video.

Since its heyday, the 45,000-square-foot space has passed through many hands that tried to restore the space to its glory. All efforts have fallen short.

“One of the things that we see a lot of time is that people come and they say they want to do certain things, but I think they fear the residents, and if you fear people, how can you sincerely work with and help them?” Shakur says.

In 2017, Jon and Linda Halbert acquired the space. Through their experience as parents, the Halberts were able to see how art was able to enhance their child's ability to learn, create and thrive in life. They wanted to bring that same experience to the South Dallas community.

At the beginning of this year, the Halbert’s transferred the title to Forest Forward, a nonprofit led by Black women serving as change agents for the South Dallas community.

“A lot of the investment that's going into the theater is about bringing top state-of-the-art technology and resources to our students so that they don't have to leave their own community for them,” Forest Forward president Elizabeth Wattley says. “That is how we start putting tools in their hands, that they need, to have upward mobility and quality of life. We want to be able to bring educational opportunities, financial resources and really a holistic wrap-around effort to bring a healthy neighborhood revitalization.”

The organization is $50 million shy of its $75,215,000 goal. Donations are welcomed and encouraged on the Forest Forward website. Community tours are available by RSVP on Nov. 19 and Dec. 3.

Wattley says planning for the revitalization relied on community engagement. A chalkboard was placed outside of the Forest Theater to encourage feedback from community members. South Dallas residents were asked to answer the questions, “How do you want this to serve your community? Why do you want this to be?”

Organizers received much feedback. The chalkboard had to be erased every 2-3 days once responses were documented to allow for more comments.

Shakur says there has been an increase in investor interest in the South Dallas area and residents fear that they will soon be displaced from their communities. But he sees the project as a great benefit to the area.

“The way I see how the theater is being redone, to me, is more about revitalization than just gentrifying the area,” Shakur says, “because I think that people who live, work and go to school in South Dallas deserve to reap the benefits of it.”
click to enlarge The theater, which is undergoing renovations, is set to reopen by 2024. - COURTESY FOREST FORWARD
The theater, which is undergoing renovations, is set to reopen by 2024.
courtesy Forest Forward
click to enlarge The theater's stae once hosted names such as B.B. King and Tina Turner. - COURTESY FOREST FORWARD
The theater's stae once hosted names such as B.B. King and Tina Turner.
courtesy Forest Forward
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Desiree Gutierrez is a music and culture intern at the Dallas Observer. Equipped with her education from Dallas College Brookhaven Campus and the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism, Desiree has transformed the ability to overthink just about anything into a budding career in journalism.