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RIP: Mary L. Booker, Civil Rights Activist, Bayview Community Theater Leader

Mary L. Booker. | Photo: Barbara Ockel/Bayview Opera House
By Meaghan M. Mitchell - Published on May 26, 2017.

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.

Mary L. Booker in the 1960s. | Photo: Courtesy Michelle Batte

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 L. Booker | Photo: Courtesy Barbara Ockel

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.“

Dancers at Booker's celebration of life. | Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell.

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.”

Actress Michelle Batte. | Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell

"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 and recalled shooting dice and stealing cars before he took him in as an acting student and encouraged him to go back to school.

Kevin Williams. | Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell/Hoodline

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.

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.”

Bertron Bruno and his niece, Tina. | Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell/Hoodline

Booker’s initiative to create a better Bayview work has been recognized throughout San Francisco. In 2007 She also received the Unsung Hero award by 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.

A banner on Third St. featuring Booker. | Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell/Hoodline

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.”

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