Local anthropologist launches downtown Gullah cultural center 

The Imaginarium of Dr. O

During field studies for his master's degree in anthropology in Kenya and Nigeria, Ade Offuniyin lived in communities where blacksmiths acted as spiritual leaders. That's exactly the type of culture he went seeking, and it was the inspiration for an artisan hub he hopes to create with two downtown endeavors, Studio PS and the Gullah Theatre.

Offuniyin, known affectionately by both students and peers as Dr. O, is the grandson of revered Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons, but their bond goes deeper than simple genetics.

Born on the peninsula, Offuniyin moved to Harlem with his family when he was a boy. A good learner but a poor student, Offuniyin ended up in a boarding school, where he was introduced to heroin. By age 16 he was in jail for purse snatching. That wake-up call led Offuniyin to pursue his GED and then an undergraduate degree. He owned a trinket shop in New York until 1985, when his grandfather told him it was time to come home.

Offuniyin returned to Charleston to work as an apprentice with Simmons. He discovered a passion for brick masonry, even helping to guide the construction of the Charleston Visitors Center on Meeting Street.

In 1997, a car accident left the then-45-year-old Offuniyin unable to continue manual labor. He applied to the University of Florida's master's program in anthropology, citing his interest in connecting his own Gullah artisan culture to that of his ancestors in Africa. He parlayed that work into a PhD in cultural anthropology, which he went on to teach at UF.

Had Simmons not passed on in 2009, Offuniyin would likely still be teaching in Gainesville. But a desire to further his grandfather's legacy led him to accept a position as provost at the American College of the Building Arts. He returned home to praise and media fanfare; his life story was recounted prominently in local news.

Two years ago, Offuniyin didn't even realize that his greatest challenges were still ahead. The new provost came into his job with an agenda that included welcoming Charleston's black community into the school. He recruited six students from his neighborhood and opened Studio PS (for Philip Simmons) on Conroy Street, 10 blocks from his birthplace. Dr. O's idea was to integrate the shared workspace into the college while honoring the legacy of his grandfather.

Offuniyin says that over time, his relationship with the college soured due to disparate visions. He was released from the job earlier this year; the college cited insufficient funds to maintain his position. The doctor has since thrown himself wholeheartedly behind the studio and the Gullah Theatre project.

Although he's still dealing with official paperwork, the theater's actual space is already an impressive success. Inside the expansive theater, colorful paintings and African drums line the walls. Bob Marley plays through the stereo, and friends from the neighborhood wander in and out, some just stopping to say hello to Dr. O.

In the corner, a stage has a full set-up for a band to walk in and jam, and stools are lined up around an inviting bar against a far wall. A sizeable kitchen sits ready to prepare what Dr. O calls "vibration cooking" — wholesome, mostly vegetarian food — once permits are acquired. Upstairs, a giant dry erase board in an open office charts the progress of volunteers working to make the project a reality. Their motivation is both to cultivate artisans in the neighboring Gullah community and to contribute to a more truthful interpretation of Charleston's history.

"It disturbed me as a younger man to walk the streets and listen to carriage drivers giving visitors their interpretation of the fabrics of Charleston, which rested largely on the buildings and landscapes and famous plantation owners, but hardly ever mentioned the people that actually worked to build those mansions," Offuniyin says. "I feel obligated to maintain and forward my family's legacy and speak the truth about the contributions African people made to the city, state, and country."

Part of the project's mission is to inspire and help African-American workers, emphasizing the artisan aspects of construction and painting jobs. Only real craftsmen can compete with cheap labor from immigrants, Offuniyin says.

Most of the work completed thus far has been financed directly from Dr. O's savings. Since February 2010, he's spent over $70,000 on the space but has yet to make anything back. That's partially because of difficulties in acquiring the necessary permits from the city.

In June, Offuniyin had a show lined up to honor his grandfather, but the permits never came through. Unsure how to proceed, he slept in his office the night before, awakening with the inspiration to move the entire exhibit outside. On his own, he did just that, circumventing the need for a permit.

In October, Gullah Theatre hosted a concert called the Soulful Sounds of the Elegant Four. Offuniyin obtained a special event permit for that weekend but has not been able to acquire one for the presentation of Anne Coulter Marten's play You, The Jury, which is now scheduled for early December.

"I've still got my boxing gloves on. I'm hoping and expecting, now that the election is over, that the city will be more citizen friendly," says the doctor, expressing frustration over a year of headaches in acquiring a permit. "My intention here is to create theatrical works that speak to Gullah traditions and offer more of an experience than tourists might get just passing through the neighborhood."

Jane Baker, the city's division director of neighborhood services, says that Offuniyin's permit is 90 percent complete, but that he has yet to turn in the final architectural drawings to sign him off on fire and other safety compliances.

"We've worked with him for over a year now trying to finalize a safety plan," she explains, adding that she's ready and willing to help Offuniyin complete the last bit of paperwork the city requires. "The certificate of occupancy he needs is for the safety of patrons and organizers."

Even without an official license, Dr. O and his volunteers are already succeeding. Middle-schoolers stop into the theater for a snack and music lessons after school. Dancers, singers, and poets use the space to practice and develop their work.

For Dr. O, that's a legacy his grandfather would be proud of.

"Philip Simmons continues to be a great marketing asset to the city," says Offuniyin. "This project is to honor my grandfather and his legacy, and through that to honor our ancestors and artisans. That's the only reason I'm here."


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