Catching up with Venice Arts Mecca founder Bingwa
By Betsy Goldman
Longtime Venice residents may remember Bingwa, the founder of Venice Arts Mecca who served as executive director until the end of 1995 and head of the Venice Dream Team until 2002.
He still visits Venice between trips around the world. So, what has kept him busy? And, even more important, what is it about Bingwa that makes him tick? Many have known about the activities he provided for kids, but not much about the man who made it all possible.
Cecil Thomas, who took his middle name Bingwa, was born in Kansas City, Mo. After his father was murdered in a racial-related incident, his mother remarried and he had four half siblings. His mother was raised in Berkeley, where she still has family.
“When my cousins would visit I felt stronger a stronger bond because we were blood relatives,” he says. At 18, he left Kansas City to live with them in Berkeley.
Ethnic studies was a required class at Merritt College in Oakland, where Bingwa attended junior college. He had two choices – black history or black theater – and he wanted to study black history.
“Huey Newton’s brother, Melvin, was teaching it,” he says. “Huey was still in jail and you couldn’t get in the class. So, I had to settle for black drama.”
The black drama instructor was Ron Stacker Thompson, who would later establish the Oakland Ensemble Theatre.
“This guy had such a cool approach,” recalls Bingwa. The scenes in class were from plays written by playwrights such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. “Most of the main characters were angry, young black males,” he says. “I was told later that I had the essence of everything needed for this role.” In addition to acting, Bingwa learned about sound, lighting, props and anything needed to put on a show.
In 1973, the Oakland Ensemble Theatre set up in an old Victorian house. It was before the days of recycling and adaptive reuses, but Bingwa said he learned how to give new life to discarded items. “This was my whole thing when I saw the Venice Pavilion years later,” he says.
During his time with the theatre group Bingwa started visual performing art classes for kids from four community groups, including one through the Black Panther breakfast program.
“Everything that Venice Arts Mecca had, we had here,” he says. “All the instructors were also volunteers.” Numerous actors from the Bay area, such as Danny Glover, came through the theatre. “They had migrated down south to Los Angeles and said ‘come on down,” he says.
In 1980, after doing a PBS weekly series that got Bingwa into the actors’ unions, he moved to Silver Lake. In 1986, Venice became home.
“It was a community that reminded me of Berkeley,” he says. In 1989, he started attending community meetings and listening to people “working in their own bubble.” “My thing was there are resources right here where you can do for yourself and not have to apply for government grants or corporate sponsorships,” he says. Acting roles and commercials kept him busy until the mid-1990s.
After he had some philosophical differences with the Venice Arts Mecca board of directors, some of the kids stayed with Bingwa and became the Venice Dream Team – because “we were continuing the dream of a self-supporting entity that would empower the youth to show how you can make use of resources that are available to you without any type of funding,” he says.
In 1996, the Venice Dream Team traveled the world taking photographs. Their side stories and interviews at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics were picked up by NBC and made national news, says Bingwa. Based on their networking connections made at the Olympics, the group was welcomed in Paris, Rome, Switzerland and Venice, and they were invited to exhibit photos in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague.
Bingwa recalled how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had a big effect on him, as it did on many others. “Your life doesn’t stop,” he says. “You can’t be scared.” After the Venice Dream Team ended following 9-11, Bingwa fulfilled a year’s commitment to work with a youth group in New Orleans and then left the United States.
Between 2003 and 2007, Bingwa backpacked through Europe working in hostels, restaurants and pubs in 14 different countries while working on youth projects. “They didn’t give me a salary, just provided room and board,” he says. “I hitchhiked or took a train between stops.”
Traveling worked with Bingwa’s three-month life cycles. “It has been this way since I was 18,” he says. In the theatre he had six weeks of rehearsal and six weeks for the show. Then the routine started over again. Later, he could work on projects in most countries legally for three months and, again, the routine would repeat when it was time to move on to somewhere else.
Living as a vagabond will end in a year and a half when Bingwa reaches the age where he can retire and get a pension from the Screen Actors Guild. He is “interning” at the Melody Bar & Grill in Westchester, where he is preparing for what might be his final chapter – as a hostel operator in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“There are a lot of abandoned buildings in Bulgaria,” he says. “With EU (European Union) money their infrastructure is being changed. Old buildings will be torn down.” With his philosophy of using what is at hand, he plans to turn an abandoned school into a hostel.
“It already has showers, a gym and cafeteria,” he says. “The few hostels they have in Bulgaria are only 20 beds or less. This one will be 400 or 500 beds.” So, right now he is learning management.
“I know how to run a hostel,” he says. “The entertainment, food and bar I don’t know that well.” Thanks to Melody Bar & Grill co-owner, Christian Warren, who was a photography instructor with Venice Arts Mecca, Bingwa is getting a good education.