Sade Lythcott Is Building Her Own Theater Legacy

Sade Lythcott was never supposed to be in theater, or, at least, she never wanted to be.

She grew up around Black art and live performance thanks to her mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of the National Black Theatre, in Harlem. As is the case with the children of most entrepreneurs, Lythcott’s place was laid out before her, but also like the children of those same entrepreneurs, she didn’t want to follow it. Instead she started her career in fashion in high school, later moving on to broadcasting post-college, only to switch back to fashion

“My mother would famously say my and my brother’s whole life, ‘I don’t know why I worked so hard. It’s not like you two are going to do anything with it,’” she jokes over Zoom. 

Lythcott began her stint at the National Black Theatre as a costume designer, and after trying her hand at acting and realizing that “theater wasn’t really my thing,” it seemed she would have abandoned the profession altogether had her mother not unexpectedly passed away in 2008. 

“I never got to ask my mom, like, ‘How would you do this?’ Like, ‘What advice would you give me,’ which, you know, in some ways magnified my grief by having to mourn my mother while trying to fill her shoes,” she says. 

During her mother’s funeral—an opulent homegoing as rich and vibrant as the woman they were celebrating—Maya Angelou, the great poet to some and “Auntie Maya” to Lythcott, wrote a poem about the late Dr. Teer and her legacy, one that was practically unclockable. 

“She literally wrote, like, the shortest stanza that basically said, like, no one should follow in her footsteps, that no one did it better,” Lythcott says. “And here I am, like, sitting in this funeral seat, listening to Maya Angelou’s words, being like, Don’t do what you’re about to try to do.”

In the years that followed, Lythcott felt like she was working in the shadow of her late mother, understandably so. But it wasn’t until Lyrics From Lockdown, by Bryonn Bain—a piece she fully chose, executive-produced, and put on as the CEO of the National Black Theatre—that she came into her own. 

“That was the moment where the power of art and activism became so clear for me as not only a calling,” she says, “but I saw myself as being a change agent, and that made me feel successful.”  

And while advice from the late Angelou once got in her head, it wasn’t until she revisited the piece years later that she realized her ancestors gave her the keys to her own leadership and freedom to propel her further into her vision for a new era for the National Black Theatre, one expanding with a new physical space in 2024.

Below, we caught up with Sade Lythcott to learn how she does the work of promoting and elevating Black arts, culture, and history every day, whether it be from the stage wings or a makeshift desk at home. 

My average morning

I spend the morning with my son Thelonious—getting him ready for school, breakfast, pack his lunch and have him out the door. After he leaves for school, I get 20 to 30 of that time to meditate, and then the meetings start. I’m in back-to-back meetings 10 to 12 hours a day, that usually start around 8:30 a.m. or 9 and then go into the evening, but my mornings are so sacred to me because I get that time with my son. I also try to carve out a little bit time for my own centering and self-care.

My favorite part about my job

One of the reasons why I loved working in television as a producer was because it was a live show. Every day was something very new every day. And so, I will say, what is the most rewarding about my day is how diverse it is—National Black Theatre supports so many different kinds of artists, and we have a capital project going on, sectorwide advocacy between developing and producing new works and incredible Black artists. There’s also the part where I get to teach and guest-lecture at universities. So every day I try not to look at what is on my schedule until the end of the day before, so it’s like Christmas. 

How I fight back against the patriarchy

The patriarchy is real, and the world orientates around a very colonial lens that permeates all things, but I was raised in such an incredible environment that really prioritized self-determination and prioritizes the role of Black liberation as a vehicle to autonomy and freedom. So I will say, I’ve worked in environments where I have felt marginalized. I have worked in environments where it was clear that my voice wasn’t as valued as someone else’s at the table, but none of it has ever really fazed me because I walk into rooms with this deep faith of who I am. I never feel like I’m walking into a room or intimidated by a room if I’m the only one that looks like me, because the way I was raised, I’m always walking into the room powered by my ancestors. I just don’t value a lens that doesn’t value me, and therefore I don’t invest in even participating in that space. 

My favorite low-stakes treat after a productive day

In the summer it’s an ice-cold glass of white wine like Grüner or rosé and in the winter a full-bodied red. Something about that glass of wine at the end of the day really punctuates that my day is completed. 

My go-to thank you gift

I really love to support Black businesses, and there’s so many talented Black florist and floral artists. I feel like Black folks just do stuff with more soul, so sending flowers from these small black businesses to people who perhaps never have seen flowers done with that spin, it awakens people to not only the gratitude I have for them, but also introduces them to new artists. The Studio Museum and the National Black Theatre’s gift shops also are great—NBT relaunched its Black Joy tote bags, and that’s my go-to gift now. 

A theater production that inspired me 

We produced the world premiere of Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames, a New York Times critic’s pick, and it transformed our space. James wrote this gorgeous play—about those boys’ humanity and what happens to their soul after it’s ripped from this earthly plane and that they’re still just boys but in purgatory. Folks don’t often hear the narrative around these atrocities. They see the activism of Black Lives Matter, but what they don’t see is the impact of this trauma porn on our communities specifically—that these men and boys and girls become these martyrs but what actually happens to their life and their legacy outside of the movement. That humanizing of tragedy, that giving back to them and to us as community, to our young people as people and not with this labor of pushing the movement forward, will always stand out in my mind. 

What I wear during rehearsals

You have to master the art of an elastic waistband, a lip, and patterns. You could be in sweats, but if it’s like a pattern on pattern on pattern, it creates like this ’fit where you might be in your pajamas, but it’s the most interesting look. 

The Instagram Stories I never skip

I love Cleo Wade‘s writing—full transparency, she’s a NBT board member—but I always get something from her feed. Also, I will say, Nap Ministry is my ministry. I wake up to NBT‘s morning affirmations, and I take my glass of wine in the evening with the Nap Ministry. But if you want something dishy, I’m always checking out The Shade Room too.  

People would be happier at work if…

They took the time to breathe deeply, and consciously access their joy.

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