Alum James Emmanuel Roberts ’66 (aka Kona Khasu Sr.) is spearheading an initiative to restore Liberia’s art culture, lost to decades of civil war, as founder and artistic director of the Blamadon Center for Arts. He recently saw his efforts take a giant leap forward with the donation of a two-acre estate and mansion at Sugar Beach, about 12 miles from Monrovia on the Atlantic Ocean, which he hopes to transform into a “Lincoln Center for Liberia.”
The house was made famous by the 2008 bestselling memoir, “The House at Sugar Beach,” written by New York Times reporter and Liberian native Helene Cooper who fled the home with her family when the Liberian military overthrew the elected government in 1980.
Before Liberia’s Civil War, Roberts worked in theatre, dance and television for more than 10 years. At the time of the coup, he was declared an enemy of the state and nearly executed.
“My plays had been critical of the administration and I refused to take a position in the government,” recalls Roberts. “I spent some time in prison– for two weeks in 1975 and again in 1985 for more than a year.”
After his incarceration, Roberts fled Liberia and was exiled in the United States. He returned to Liberia in 1997, establishing an NGO that designed training programs for educators. In 2006, he was named deputy minister for planning, research and development for the Ministry of Education. In this role he worked to expand educational access to children in remote communities, oversaw reconstruction of schools damaged during the civil war, and helped develop a 10-year recovery plan focusing on building a robust educational system from the ground up.
He founded the Blamadon Center for Arts in December 2010.
“The Blamadon Center for the Arts was nurtured by my participation during my childhood in the rich and diverse cultural festivals for which this part of Liberia is famous. It was further enriched by my academic experience at the Colleges,” says Roberts.
The mission of the Blamadon Center for the Arts is to instill an unconditional love for the shared culture and its enduring principles and values in all Liberians and to ensure tolerance and respect for the people’s diversity.
The donation of the Sugar Beach property will give a home to urban Liberian artists who Roberts says, “have long been an unnoticed and disregarded ‘homeless’ community. Unlike their counterparts in neighboring countries, they have no studio space and no performance space. This is true for all of the arts, whether it’s the performing or visual arts. What little public space was available was completed destroyed by the 20-year Civil War.”
The physical destruction of Liberia during its wars included the loss of its official arts center, the National Culture Center in Monrovia.
Marlene Cooper Vasilic, who donated the property to Blamadon on behalf of her family, explains, “It was our wish to do something with the property and we had been talking to different NGOs to find a use that would benefit the citizens of Liberia.”
She was approached about Blamadon by Emmanuel’s son, Kona Khasu Jr., while working with him on an arts project and presented the idea of donating Sugar Beach to her family.
“The arts helped save me when I came to the States. My involvement in theatre helped me get beyond being a refugee from my home at 9. It provided me with a voice I never had before,” she says. Vasilic is director of outreach and special events with the Center for American Progress and was previously assistant director for distance learning and audience enrichment at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.
She notes Roberts was an iconic figure in the arts and theatre in Liberia and she recalls watching his television show while living at Sugar Beach. “I couldn’t think of a better person to run the Blamadon Center for the Arts than Khona Sr.”
Vasilic is also now a board member of Blamadon, using the experience she’s gained in the arts to help restore Liberia’s artistic culture.
“It was lost during the wars and a whole generation of young people aren’t getting to know their country or their culture,” she says. “The center will also serve as a place for new voices, bringing international artists in to share their work and see what that’ll spark. The opportunities will be endless once the center is created.”
The board is in discussion with an architect and is preparing long range plans for the organization.
“Artists are so anxious to start using the building groups are already signing up for rehearsal and studio space. As soon as formalities are agreed, and policies established, performing groups will begin rehearsing; visual artists will set up their workstations,” says Roberts. “If we can get a generator for lights, artists will come to the center at night and do their thing.”
In an article about BCA this spring, the Liberian Listener noted, “The arts center and it artistic director it seems is what post war Liberia needs as arts gradually takes the center stage in the country.”
The photo above features the House at Sugar Beach.