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Dreamland Rising: How one Tulsan is working to rebuild Greenwood’s famed theater

by Nate Morris

Over Juneteenth weekend, several dozen people gathered in the No Parking Studios courtyard by the railroad tracks in downtown Tulsa. Music pulsed from a DJ booth inside as folx grabbed slices of pizza before settling into a spot on the lawn outback. 

A few of the event organizers anchored a large, inflatable projector screen with cinder-blocks and heavy backpacks as the sunset cast a golden shadow on the city’s skyline. The crowd noise subsided as the screen flickered to life and a short film about reparations, produced by a Black filmmaker, started playing.

This was Dreamland.

Reviving one of Greenwood’s most iconic symbols

The Williams Dreamland Theater was a staple in Greenwood before the massacre in 1921. It boasted seating for up to 750 to come and enjoy live performances and silent feature films. 

The theater’s destruction was chronicled in the opening scene of the 2019 HBO series ‘Watchmen’. Dreamland was rebuilt in the 1950s before being lost again to urban removal during the construction of I-244.

For community advocate Kolby Webster, Dreamland represented something unique to the history of Tulsa and the country as a whole.

“Thinking about a Black-owned theater that was thriving up until the massacre and the highway it’s – it’s powerful,” Webster said in an interview with TheBWSTimes.

Rebuilding Dreamland as a space of “resilience and joy”

“I want to bring it back and create this sense of resilience and joy,” he continued. “To be able to have an escape is important and to host a Black space is so needed, especially in this time and space.”

Webster is partnering with individuals across the city to bring the theater back to life.  The Dreamland Tulsa team boasts architects, engineers, city residents and a member of the Williams family (owners of the original theater).  The group meets bi-weekly under Webster’s leadership to develop a vision and long-term plan together.

The Juneteenth event, a collaboration with Clean Hands, was the launch of what Webster hopes will be a series of opportunities to elevate Black filmmaking in Tulsa.

The launch event featured three films from Black artists. Two films were by artists in other cities and one was by Tulsan Keith Daniels (aka Sneak the Poet). 

Webster intentionally selected films representing a variety of genres in order to highlight the breadth of Black art and creativity. The first film was a comedic commentary on reparations and the second was a poignant take on dealing with grief. The third, written and directed by Daniels, was an abstract, poetic recounting of the massacre.

“It was really cool to present films by artists from around the country,” Webster said. “It speaks to what Tulsa can be.”

What’s next in the effort to restore Dreamland

The footprint of Dreamland Theater sits beneath the concrete of I-244 in the middle of historic Greenwood. Webster is working to create space to celebrate the work of Black artists on the Silver screen.  One day, he hopes to rebuild the physical structure of Dreamland near where the original theater once stood.

“I want to bring Black and brown voices and bodies to the screen through any genre and just make it a part of peoples’ night,” said Webster.

Webster said that Dreamland Tulsa’s next event is likely to be a reggae-themed night later in the summer. The organizer is currently looking for Afro-Caribbean short films to elevate during the event. 

An undeniable sense of history filled the space at Dreamland Tulsa’s June 18th launch event. 

“This is amazing,” said Tulsa artist Rebekah Campbell McIlwain at the launch event. “I feel like we’re going to look back on this moment one day and say ‘I was there when’.”

Stay up-to-date with Dreamland Tulsa’s work and future events by following the group on Facebook and Instagram.  A website (www.DreamlandTulsa.org)  has also recently been launched with more information and instructions on how to donate to efforts to rebuild the Greenwood landmark.

1 comment

Shana Marie Miller July 9, 2021 - 5:03 am

There are North Tulsa Talents that should be able to contribute to this effort. Belinda Williams, BTW Class of 1981 is a once City Manager of Daytona Beach Florida ( I don’t know if she is retired), and is Certified in Urban Historical Preservation and Restoration. If she could get a copy of the blue prints of the original building…I’m sure she’d do a bang up job…just my 2 cents worth…

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