Longtime Venice residents will remember Bingwa, founder of Venice Arts Mecca in 1991 and the Executor Director until the end of 1995, then head of the Venice Dream Team until 2002. He still visits Venice between trips around the world. So, what has kept him busy? But, even more important, what is it about Bingwa that makes him tick? We knew the great 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, Missouri. After his father was murdered in a racial incident, his mother remarried and he had four( half-siblings. His mother was raised in Berkeley California where she still had family. “When my cousins would visit I felt a stronger bond because we were blood relatives,” he says. At 18, he left to live with them in Berkeley.
Merritt College in Oakland where Bingwa attended, required a class in Ethnic Studies. He had two choices – Black History or Black Theater. He wanted 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,” says 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 from the Midwest or East,” 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 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 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, like 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 which got Bingwa into the actors’ unions, he finally moved, first to Silver Lake. In 1986, Venice became home. “It was a community, it reminded me of Berkeley,” he says. In 1989 he started going to 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 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.
From 1996 to 2001, 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. From their networking connections at the Olympics, the group was welcomed in Paris, Rome, Switzerland, Venice and were invited to exhibit photos in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague.
Then 9/11 happened. It had a big effect on Bingwa as it did on many others. “Your life doesn’t stop,” he says. “You can’t be scared.” But, it did end the Venice Dream Team. He 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 hitch-hiked or took a train.
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 6 weeks of rehearsal and 6 weeks for the show. Then the routine started over again. Later on, he could work on projects in most countries legally for 3 months and, again, the routine would repeat when it was time to move on to somewhere different.
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. If you want to find him now, he is “interning” at the Melody Bar & Grill in Westchester getting ready 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.” Again, with his philosophy of using what is at hand, he will 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. Be sure to stop by to say hello.