Backstage at the 'New' McCree Theatre, where generations have found the opportunity experience theatre. (Mike Naddeo |

FLINT, MI — It is authentic.

It is strong, filled with talent, and inspiring generation after generation of artists.

It is home to the African American story in the African American voice.

It is the “New” McCree Theatre, located on the northside of Flint, and it is unlike any other in the state of Michigan.

At the heart of the theatre is Charles Winfrey. Behind the scenes, at the box office, introducing productions and sometimes writing them, the 74-year-old is on his second stint with the theatre.

See, this is the “New” McCree Theatre—because this is the theatre’s second life cycle.

The McCree Theatre first came to life in 1970, funded initially as part of the Model Cities Program and then Community Development Block Grants.

Famed Flint artist Lavarne Ross was one of the founding members of the McCree Theatre, even personally choosing the name to honor Mayor Floyd McCree, the first popularly elected black mayor of a large city since Reconstruction.

One of his paintings hangs in the hall just outside the theatre, by the gymnasium and the occasional school announcements that make their way into the theatre area.

“I hope it continues to grow and provide what our community needs. We need to see our talent. We need to know we are needed. The African American community in Flint, we need it,” Ross says.

Then the equipment started disappearing and funding slowly dried up, until finally the theatre waned, taking a 15-year hiatus until 2004, when it came back—“New”—and determined to establish a more secure funding stream.

After 13 years, it is still “New” and always will be.

Winfrey was the first and remains the only executive director the “New” McCree Theatre.  The theatre has had several homes over the years, but always it’s own dedicated stage and always on the northside of Flint.

“There is such a definite void on this side of town,” Winfrey says.

Now located at New Standard Academy, the charter school that operates in the former Powers Catholic High School on Carpenter Road, the 380-seat theatre features red cushioned seats, room to add another 20 seats for larger productions, and fully equipped sound and lighting systems.

The theatre has four productions a year and is in a near-constant cycle of auditions, casting, workshops, rehearsals, and performances.  There are generally about 30 people in each cast and about seven paid contract employees including choreographers, music director, director and technician, and set design.

It borrows occasionally from other area theatres including the University of Michigan-Flint’s theatre department and Flint Community Players to round out set and costume needs.

“It’s all about rejoicing in the talent that is so pinnacle in the Flint area,” Winfrey says.

Typically three of the four shows a year are musicals. Casts generally put in 15 hours a week, 40 weeks of the year. The theatre has provided an opportunity for art, expression, and growth for generations.

“Watching raw talent come up on stage and watching it blossom and be heard—there is just great joy in that. Each production becomes a family,” Winfrey says.

Born in Mississippi and raised in Flint, his family moved here “like everyone else” for General Motors jobs and the promise of factory jobs.

Winfrey grew up in the St. John Street neighborhood and in the 1960s was a leader of the Black Student Union at Mott Community College. He went on to earn a degree in Africana Studies and political science from the University of Michigan-Flint.

He also became a behind the scenes political leader, especially during Mayor Woodrow Stanley’s terms.  And, that might be one reason why Winfrey knows so many people.

He laughs off the suggestion, though, saying simply, “I’ve been around a long time.”

Winfrey is a passionate man who chooses his words cautiously, meaningfully. And, he won’t shy away from telling exactly what he thinks.

And, let there be no mistake, Winfrey says, theatre is a two-way street. It gives to the community, but it also needs—and deserves—the community’s support. More than anything else, Winfrey needs one thing for “New” McCree Theatre’s continued success:

“Butts in the seats.”

Winfrey would love to see the theatre grow, to create a touring show that could go to other underserved areas of the state of Michigan, perhaps even to other states, creating a new avenue for both performers and audience goers to see and experience the African-American story.

He dreams of a theatre production that could provide even more nurturing for the area’s talent, taking them to New York and meeting with professional actors to build their skills.

That’s a dream, and Winfrey shrugs a little bit as he describes it. It’s a dream, but it doesn’t distract from the important work he wants to continue doing right here, in his hometown, with this community and for this community.

You see, the “New” McCree Theatre is a constant driving force. There’s never too much of a break to stop and daydream about what could be, because there is so much that already is.

It is a constant churn.

“Detroit ’67” wrapped up Feb. 18. Auditions for  “Needle in a Haystack: The Story of the Velvelettes” just finished and the workshops start March 20. The show runs May 4-27.

And, the 2017-18 season will be announced in April.

Through it all, Winfrey pours his heart and mind into the theatre. He has written about 14 of the theatre’s productions, including the upcoming show based on the true story of two cousins from Flint who joined with two sisters from Kalamazoo to become one of Motown’s longest lasting girl group acts.

He digs through local history, consults other historians and conducts interviews as part of the research for his plays. Then he uses the chronology of events and his imagination to build his scripts.

Asked how and why he does all this, Winfrey answers, with his typical shrug of the shoulders.

“Well, you know, there are 24 hours in a day … let’s create something beautiful,” Winfrey said.

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