The WACO Theater Center is preparing for the return of their annual Wearable Art Gala. Taking place on Saturday October 22, 2022 in Los Angeles, the gala, which was founded by Richard Lawson and Tina Knowles-Lawson, supports WACO's efforts toward youth mentorship and development through the promotion of artistic expression. EBONY is a proud media sponsor of this year's charitable event. This year's theme for the gala is "Harlem Nights" and will showcase the artistic beauty and intellectual splendor of the Harlem Renaissance.

Below, the Lawsons discuss their upcoming gala and the work they do at the WACO Theater Center.

EBONY: The WACO Theater Center is "Where Art Can Occur." Can you talk about the significant work you've been doing over the years?

Richard Lawson: At WACO Theater Center, mentorship combines with the arts. In turn, these young people become better and stronger while gaining clarity on their destiny and dreams for the future. It all goes hand in hand.

WACO is a functioning theatre where we have a season of plays, dance recitals, opera and symphony. In one of the programs we have, I put a camera in people's hands and teach them how to become a filmmaker. We also have a television station—WACO TV—where students can physically go in and see the films that they make. In making these films, these kids learn a lot about themselves; they see who they are, their competency, speech patterns, posture and bare witness to stories about their lives. It's an effective program.

Tina Knowles-Lawson: Tina's Angels and Rich's Warriors are mentorship programs that we have housed at WACO with kids we met ranging from sixth grade through college. We just had our first class graduate from high school and took them on a senior trip to Las Vegas. They are from a school we adopted, the KIPP Academy, which is in South Central Los Angeles. We do everything from exposing the kids to the arts and travel. For many students, our trips have been their first time flying on a plane, staying in a hotel and ordering room service. We've also been able to take 10 students to Africa. We teach them about hygiene and etiquette and take them out to dinner. Additionally, Richard does a class with them, which opens their eyes to who they are through film.

This year's Wearable Art Gala is extra special as it returns after a two year pause because of the pandemic. It's also a celebration of five years of the WACO Theater Center. How was the "Harlem Nights" theme selected for this year's event?

Tina Knowles- Lawson: The Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite historical eras to learn about in terms of music, fashion and art. Although I don't think I would have liked to have lived during that time because of the racial discrimination, I'm sure I would have enjoyed the fashion, the music and the camaraderie amongst people and culture; they were fabulous. After watching the film Harlem Nights, I was inspired by how cool, beautiful and pristine the 1920s were. Later, Richard and I discussed it as a potential theme for the Wearable Art Gala. Vintage cars, getting dressed up and creating a fun environment would be a great time for all. We are excited to turn the Barker Hangar into Harlem at this year's event, with huge backdrops of illuminated brownstones while drawing inspiration from businesses that thrived during that time and films like Stomping at the Savoy. Of course, we will have the EBONY Ballroom, which is extra cool because EBONY owns Harlem that night. It's a great collaboration there.

EBONY Media is a proud media partner for the Wearable Art Gala this year. Why was it essential to bring EBONY into the fold?

Richard Lawson: When you look at the reality of Black people, it is very connected with time. Who we are today is very much a product of time—from slavery, segregation, integration, and all those things. When I do think about my life, Johnson Publishing comes up quickly. EBONY magazine was always on the tables as an opportunity to get a sense of history. JET magazine as well. [They] helped you find out what was happening in the world. As Black folks, EBONY is a staple part of our growth, education, understanding, appreciation and sense of passion. All of this came from what the Johnsons created. We couldn't think of a more fitting sponsor than EBONY Media because it represents everything that many of us remember about our lives and culture.

Tina Knowles- Lawson: That's right. We just grew up with that. In our time, we had an understanding as kids that if it's not in EBONY or in JET, it simply wasn't true. It was ingrained in us. 

Wearable art is such a unique concept. How would you define it in your own terms?

Tina Knowles- Lawson: Wearable art is just expressing your creativity in the form of dress. I say all the time that Black people just have a flair like no other. We walk differently, we dance differently, we dress differently—and it's always going to be with some extra point of flair with it. And so I think to celebrate that and wearable art is so important. People get to express themselves. It's really interesting to see people who are are bankers to put on this wearable art and to be creative. It just it pushes people past their comfort zone.

Richard Lawson: Women have always dressed with flair, color variety and stuff. But men are always just in suits; they all look the same with a tie. I hate tuxedos.—everybody looks like a penguin. We wanted an outlet where folks could express their creativity in dress. After the gala's first year, people got more and more creative in terms of what they wore. Now why is that important, you may ask? Because young people see that success can have imagination; it can have a sense of freedom to it—where you can break the rules and use your imagination to create. So now our event is a place where people break all the standard rules in dress. It's amazing to see these incredible people come as a piece of art. And it's just amazing to see that now, especially for us [as Black folks], since we're the ones who really originated the whole aspect of flair, in music, in dance and in song. Now, we're seeing us really live in our excellence, in our Blackness.

Many phenomenal artists—such as Derrick Adams, April Bey and Hebru Brantley—will have their work auctioned this year. What went into the curation process of selecting those artists to have their work included?

Tina Knowles- Lawson: The unique thing about our gala is that we deeply emphasize art—great art. I've been an art collector for a long time and have always encouraged young people to start collecting. Once you get your first piece, you are hooked. It's a wonderful investment that you get to enjoy every day of your life. We take submissions from up-and-coming artists and we have a team that evaluates and decides on every single piece and whether or not it is something that's going to fit into what we do. We have two curators that also go out and solicit big artists as well. We try to get as broad a range of artists in the seats as possible. We adamantly emphasize educating people about the arts and collecting both with the gala and generally through WACO's efforts. We promote young visual artists in our theater as the walls are a gallery. We hold receptions for them and try to help them sell their work. Folks of all ages, especially kids, should be exposed to positive experiences like this, too. It makes a difference when they see images of people who look like them growing up.

Angela Bassett will be honored this year at your event with the Film & TV Icon Award and Mark Bradford will be presented with the Art Icon Award. How were they selected as honorees?

Tina Knowles- Lawson: Mark Bradford is the ultimate artist and human being. He and his partner have built a museum in the middle of Leimert Park, a conscious renovation of the neighborhood where they still reside. It's so fascinating. He's terrific, and it's important to acknowledge him not only for his art and work in major museums worldwide but also for him being an incredible human being. He gives back to his community. As far as Angela Bassett is concerned, she deserves all the flowers we can gather and give her. This woman has been in approximately 150 movies, and she's worked well beyond the 1990s and almost every year since. She has a stellar career and is still the most kind, down-to-earth human being. We can't say enough about those two people.

What is your hope for the next five years of the WACO Theater Center and beyond? 

Richard Lawson: First, the goal is to continue to expand. There's another component that we are in the process of developing, which is the mobile arts theater. With this project, we will convert trucks into stages, dressing rooms and stage manager booths, and journey into the communities of the greater Los Angeles area. For example, we might have theater Friday night, music on Saturday night, and comedy and poetry on Sunday night—that is the entertainment portion. The education piece is where we have job fairs, health fairs and fiscal literacy workshops. We also intend to invite local vendors to put their wares up around the perimeter of the spaces where we bring art, information and education so that people can come, sit on the grass and see the work we share. 

We also produced a feature film called Black Terror, an award-winning play done in 1971. WACO Theater Center has now grown into a visual arts platform that allows us to bring information and entertainment to the global community. As our stage expands, we seek to challenge our community, educate our kids and entertain our culture. We are in a constant state of growth.