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RIP: Mary L. Booker, civil rights activist, Bayview community theater leader

May 27, 2017

by Meaghan M. Mitchell

On stage and off, Mother Mary Booker’s passion for the people served as a pillar to keep Bayview Hunters Point upright when hostile winds blew. – Photo: Anne Hamersky, Bayview Opera House

Mary L. Booker, a longtime associate of Bayview Opera House and civil rights advocate, passed away at Coming Home Hospice in San Francisco on May 11 of leukemia. She was 85.

Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1931, Booker moved to San Francisco in 1955. Five years later, she started Infinity Productions at Bayview Opera House, where she offered free acting workshops, in addition to writing and directing several productions.

A strong advocate for social justice, Booker used the theatrical arts to promote African-American culture and bring together community members from different generations. Members of Providence Baptist Church referred to her as “Mother Booker,” a name that followed her to the Bayview Opera House. She was known for her nurturing character.

Mary Booker on stage in the 1960s – Photo courtesy Michelle Batte

After her funeral at Providence on May 16, hundreds of celebrants attended Booker’s homegoing at Bayview Opera House, emceed by board member Theodore Ellington.

Ellington praised Booker’s “intensity, her steadfastness and her passion for performing arts,” encouraging attendees “to preserve her legacy and ensure there’s a permanent fixture here at the Bayview Opera House.”

Although known as a nurturer, many spoke of her no-nonsense style of directing the actors who performed in her productions.

“She was the closest thing I had to a basketball coach,” said actor Walter Johnson. “She took to drama like a fish to water. You better know your lines when you’re dealing with Mother Booker and bring your A game.”

The historic Bayview Opera House, saved decades ago from City Hall-ordered demolition by the people of Bayview Hunters Point, led by strong Black women like Mary Booker, was all dressed up for her Celebration of Life on May 23, a beautiful service highlighted by dancers. – Photo: Meaghan Mitchell, Hoodline

Actress Michelle Batte, a student of Mother Booker from childhood, enters the Bayview Opera House for her Celebration of Life. Built in 1888 and originally named the South San Francisco Opera House, still the name engraved over the historic front entrance, the building became the Bayview Opera House when South San Francisco became its own incorporated city. – Photo: Meaghan Mitchell, Hoodline

“She was the voice for the community, the voice of essence and reason,” said Michelle Batte, who was 12 years old when she first met Booker.

“She made sure that if you put your name on something, it was done in decent and order, and always on time,” said Batte. “She believed that you never half-ass do anything!”

Kevin Williams, son of Bayview community activist Ruth Williams, said Booker encouraged him to stay off the streets. He recalled shooting dice and stealing cars before she took him in as an acting student and encouraged him to go back to school.

Williams later graduated from San Francisco State University. “She believed in young people and encouraged us to stay off the streets by doing something creative and productive,” he said.

Speaking with the passion of his drama coach, Kevin Williams credited Mother Booker with directing him from the streets to college, as Bay View publisher Dr. Willie Ratcliff, left, listens. Williams spent his career defending and supporting Black contractors and workers as a compliance officer at the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, often earning the wrath of racist overseers who feared Black competition in the construction industry. – Photo: Meaghan Mitchell, Hoodline

Mary Booker is featured on Third Street banners. – Photo: Meaghan Mitchell, Hoodline

Playwright and director Bertron Bruno worked with Booker at Bayview Opera House since 1994. Engaging the community’s youth is “an uphill battle,” he said, but Booker took her mission seriously by using theater to give kids a sense of discipline and accomplishment.

Performing in a Booker production wasn’t just a test of acting talent, said Bruno. “It was more about how showing you’re good at something could influence the Bayview community.”

For the Bayview Opera House Grand Reopening on Sept. 17, 2016, Mother Booker performed vignettes from her Bayview Stories Project, an education that earned the rapt attention of the crowd. – Photo: Jahahara Alkebulan-Maat

Booker’s initiative to create a better Bayview has been recognized throughout San Francisco. In 2007, she received the Unsung Hero award from the San Francisco Public Library.

“Ms. Booker carried the torch for the arts in Bayview Hunters Point and was an important part of the performing arts movement in San Francisco,” said Supervisor Malia Cohen, who also acknowledged Booker’s passing at the prior Board of Supervisors meeting.

Verna Howard, president of Infinity Productions, said Booker was “the stabilizer of her life” and plans to keep Infinity Productions alive in Booker’s honor.

“Her many words of encouragement and especially her intercessory prayers have shaped me into the person I am today,” said Howard. “She helped me soar.”

Another of Mary Booker’s many projects to bring the community together and make us shine was announced in this ad in the Bay View in April 2011. The Bay View’s role in supporting Mary’s work was to run fliers for her classes and events as complimentary ads.

 Mother Booker taught strangers to be friends

Poem by Bertron Bruno

For those that knew, that knew her for the classes that you attend, well, she taught more than acting; she taught strangers to be friends.

She taught commitment by the way she lived. She taught it was not how much you took, but what you would give.

Playwright and director Bertron Bruno and his niece, Tina – Photo: Meaghan Mitchell, Hoodline

Yes, she was well versed in diction, movement and such, but her focus was on responding to the human touch.

She drilled and supplied instructions on poise on the stage, and she displayed it herself when her work brought no age.

You may have thought it was acting that she tried to instill. Did you ever notice it was strength and commitment and resolve of will?

You never notice the tears behind the brightness of her smile? You ever notice her courage, her fortitude as a mother to a child?

Did you ever feel the warmth of her protection when things went bad? Or the steel in her grip of softness extended to those that were sad?

Did you know the depths of this woman who inspired in the art the souls of woman and man, as she never forgot the touch of God’s salvation plan?

Oh, did you feel the truth in the poems she wrote? That spoke of her community, and I wish I could quote.

But it spoke of barriers to life and stood them all in a row. And it exposed them with the simple words stop and go.

Did you ever realize that she would finish at the very top of all of life’s endeavors, go and stop?

Bayview Hunters Point native Meaghan Mitchell covers her hood and others for Hoodline, where this story first appeared. Contact her at @meaghan_m on Twitter or by email at meaghan@hoodline.com.

Mother Booker describes the sense of betrayal and foreboding that construction of the long-awaited light rail line to Bayview Hunters Point – now known as the T-train – created in this job-starved community. The Bay View newspaper began strongly promoting the line back in 1992, expecting the contracts and jobs building it would enrich the community enough to enable people to resist gentrification and stay in their homes. But when construction began in 2002, Black contractors and workers were completely locked out. After the community shut down construction demanding jobs, a few residents were hired to hold stop signs and direct traffic for $10 an hour, far less than the real construction jobs they qualified for, deserved and were promised.

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