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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Yao is Out; Dysfunction at the Robeson

a man smiling
Yao Kahlil Newkirk

The community dearly hopes that the African American Cultural Center can pull itself together and that the Paul Robeson Theatre, Buffalo's oldest continually operating theater, can thrive again.

As reported earlier this week on this website, Yao Kahlil Newkirk has resigned as artistic director at the Robeson after an angry confrontation with Jim Pitts, executive director of the center. Pitts is the third executive director at the center in a little over a year.

This is the same Jim Pitts who was once described by the Buffalo News as "Mr. Confrontation," when he was Buffalo Common Council President.

Way back in 2002, Charity Vogel of the Buffalo News described Pitts' by saying, "To some people, he's the kind of tough leader the city desperately needs right now. To others, he's a bad-tempered obstructionist best summed up by his behind-the-scenes nickname: the Great Intimidator."

Recall that when beloved Agnes Bain stepped down after 38 years as executive director of the center, there was no clear succession plan. Ms. Bain died on January 28, 2020. Tina Washington-Abubeker was hired to replace her.

Washington-Abubeker and the board fired Paulette Harris, the longtime artistic director of the Robeson. Annette Daniels Taylor was hired as the new artistic director, but resigned after less than a month when she realized the chain of command at the center was not clear, and the demands being made upon her were inconsistent with her understanding at the time she was hired. Yao Kahlil Newkirk was hired to replace her.

Meanwhile, Washington-Abubeker's tenure degraded into open conflict with the board, culminating with protests outside the center and an open letter from the embattled executive director, published in the Challenger newspaper on Sept. 16, 2021. She was fired, four days later.

Jacqueline Mines was hired as executive director, but resigned after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge for spending money from another nonprofit on her personal expenses, a case unrelated to her work at the African American Cultural Center. Pitts then became executive director.

For his part, unhappy with what he felt was poor treatment, Newkirk tried to resign back in September 2022. The board asked him to stay on. After his last interaction with the current executive director, however, he felt he had no choice. Newkirk submitted his resignation on February 28, 2023.

In his resignation letter, Newkirk expresses his love for the theater and the center, as well as gratitude for board members who have been supportive. He reports that Pitts accused him of "stealing ticket money" from the theater's recent production of Cadillac Crew by Tori Sampson. According to Newkirk, the money, intended for the AACC bank account had simply not been transferred from Paypal, and was sitting in plain sight. Newkirk also reports that the remainder of the Paul Robeson season is cancelled. Rehearsals were underway for the play The Niceties. The season would have concluded with Margaret Edson’s Wit.

The situation at the Robeson continues to be dismal. The community waits, hoping someone can pull the place together.

The text of Newkirk's letter of resignation is reprinted below. A link to a recording of Newkirk's confrontation with Pitts is also provided below. On the recording, as Newkirk endeavors to answer questions about the Wix website building software, Pitts does not seem to understand the responses. Tempers escalate rapidly. Wix provides the ability to charge admissions; the transactions are then entirely traceable. No cash is exchanged. Pitts seems to believe that Newkirk has co-mingled box office income with his own personal business, and does not seem to understand the difference between owning the software platform and designing a website using that platform. The interaction is clearly frustrating for both parties.

Yao Kahlil Newkirk's letter or resignation -- February 28, 2023

Please accept this as my official notice of resignation. As you are aware, over the last two plus years, we have had many differences of opinion regarding the processes, style of management, work assignments, and overall day-to-day functions of the organization. We have experienced much transition since my joining the team in 2020. We are on our third executive director in the last 15 months. All my fellow coworkers are gone; most have been fired unjustly or were forced to resign due to poor and unprofessional leadership. I, alone, am the last man standing from the time of my hiring. I have done my absolute best to carry the torch of my predecessors, in spite of the lack of support, and overbearing micromanaging style displayed by management. I am proud of the work I have done. When the world was at a standstill, and most theatres were closed, the Paul Robeson was still active. I filmed and edited virtual productions to keep the legacy of PRT going strong, without which, we would be unable to continue making the claim as the longest running consecutive stage theatre in WNY. Although Mr. James Pitts has complained I did not produce enough shows, we were so fortunate to open our doors in 2022 for in-person showings, three shows to be exact, while many theatres closed their doors permanently. Since 2020 I have operated literally as a one-man theatre. NO other theater in Western New York is operated alone by a single individual. Of course some details will slip through the cracks when you have a single individual carrying the weight of an entire department. True support is helping in the area where one says they need assistance. I never received true support. No doubt, there will be those that say they tried to “help” me. It’s not helpful to come to my department’s event and tell me you’re not going to usher like I need, because you only came to “work the money.” That’s the opposite of helpful. It’s counterproductive, intrusive, micromanaging, and disrespectful as director of the department. Additionally, the narrative has been created that the Paul Robeson is operating at a financial loss. Based on what budget? I’ve been waiting for a budget for three seasons. The theater just started spending money in 2022. Where is the money from 2020 and 2021 that was not spent on a full theatre season? Certainly, there were monies designated for such. Who can account for the whereabouts of those

Board of Directors 02/08/2023 Page 2 funds? The money I’m told was “lost” in 2022 wasn’t lost. You can’t lose free money. You can’t lose grant money unless you don’t use it. While we would love to come out of COVID making hundreds of thousands of dollars on every show, that money is specifically set aside for the programs, and doing the work. If we don’t recoup or recover a single dime of what was expended, we still haven’t lost any money. It did what it was supposed to do, programming! As a non-profit, the number one goal is not to make a million dollars, although that would be nice. The goal is to do the work, engage with the community, and provide programming. There are many challenges we have faced over the last few years, however, the last seven weeks with Mr. James Pitts as executive director have been more challenging than anyone could have imagined. My fellow coworkers and I have been harassed, bullied, verbally assaulted, and interrogated on a daily basis, forcing some to resign after what should have been a simple conversation. It is my understanding that Mr. Pitts has a goal of getting the finances of the agency in order. I both encourage and applaud his efforts. It needs to be done. His approach, however, is ghastly, and leaves much to be desired. He has had a conversation with each of the department heads, and we all have the same story; Mr. Pitts is condescending, abrupt, rude, dismissive, interruptive, never letting one complete a full sentence or thought, disrespectful, and dehumanizing. No employee deserves to be spoken to the way that we have. Communications became so repulsive that I had to begin recording our conversations. It was unfathomable that a man so wise in years would behave so lowbrow. The final straw came on Wednesday, January 25th, 2023. After Mr. Pitts signed the Code of Conduct form earlier that morning, he met with me in his office:

  1. During this meeting he cursed at me multiple times and is in clear violation of the Code of Conduct which he signed just hours before our meeting. After the last time he cursed at me in this meeting, I simply got up and walked out of the office, going back to my own office to complete my work assignments for the day. I have attached a short clip of this meeting for your listening. This is only five minutes of a 24-minute-long conversation. And this is only one of multiple conversations that were equally offensive, unprofessional, and recorded.

  2. Mr. Pitts has accused me of stealing ticket money from our shows, specifically Cadillac Crew, based on information he says he received from Marilyn Gault. This has already been disproved by our box office coordinator Ms. Patricia Wideman. All transactions are accounted for digitally and are traceable online. It was as simple as looking in the PayPal or Square account and manually accepting the funds, where we previously thought they were being automatically deposited. Not once was I informed that ticket money had not been seen transferred to the accounts. Had I been made aware the ticket sales were not automatically deposited, we could have checked the payment portals, seen that money was still sitting there, which it is, and manually transferred it to the agency account which was already attached. It would have required but a simple, non-aggressive conversation.

Board of Directors 02/08/2023 Page 3

  1. Mr. Pitts continued to make the accusation that money from the ticket sales were going to an account that did not belong to the agency, suggesting my personal LLC, again, based on information he claims to have receive from Marilyn Gault. He takes whatever information he hears about me or my coworkers, and runs with it as though it were truth, before doing his due diligence. This is an ineffective way to lead. Ms. Wideman has already confirmed that the accounts attached to all methods of payment are accounts belonging to the African American Cultural Center.

  2. I have also been accused of the Paul Robeson Theatres’ website being my personal website simply because I am the one who designed it. That’s not how websites work. Anyone can design a website on your behalf. That doesn’t make it their personal site. It makes them the designer. The theatre did not have a website dedicated to its patrons. I made a new build from the ground up, developing a user-friendly website that would host and accommodate all of our needs including a member only area, and the institution of assigned seating. It seems no good deed goes unpunished.

As is clear, many assumptions and accusations have been made with no proof, and without going directly to the source for clarification before exhibiting acts of unprofessionalism and aggression. I find it absolutely imperative that you, the Board of Directors, be made painfully aware of how your chosen executive director, is mishandling the employees that the African American Cultural Center depends on so heavily for operations and sustainability. It is clear to me, that I have become the target of a crusade to find a scapegoat for the inability of others to maintain adequate financial records. No one is able to provide information about how much funding is currently available for theatre, and dance and drum, respectively, due to the co-mingling and consistent misappropriation of funds. The issue lies with the head, not the toe. I have received communications from multiple colleagues in my industry, that not only is Mr. Pitts actively searching for a new theatre director for Paul Robeson, but he has made slanderous comments about me to individuals outside of our organization. Based on this information alone, my time at this organization was already soon coming to an end. To protect my mental health, and that of my coworkers, I have contacted the NYS Department of Labor to file an official complaint of harassment and have provided them with detailed information. Should I choose to continue with this process, you will be contacted by a representative of the Department of Labor of NYS. I trust that any monies I am owed, including final paycheck, and payment for workshops previously submitted, will not be withheld, or unreasonably delayed.


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