Friday, 18 April 2014 23:22
Some tales just cannot be watered down. And Black theatre is where our stories are told. Despite the tendency for Hollywood, Broadway and mainstream theatre to inhibit controversial stories of Black people in favor of crowd-friendly award winners about Black people, Chicago remains a city rife with Black-owned and operated theatre companies to lend authenticity to onstage portrayals of Black life. These veteran and young companies seek to cater primarily to Black audiences who do not mind hearing Black vernacular and actually prefer it, who do not think a hip-hop track soundtrack signals “low-art,” who have a broad view of Africa and who want to see the story of Black legends acted out live before their eyes rather than read about in books. The Black theatre-going audience is alive and well, and no more so than in the city of Chicago.
As childhood home to Lorraine Hansberry, one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, the inheritance of Black greatness in the dramatic arts would seem to be a given for Chicago. Visitors who wish to experience timely dramas played by world-class Black actors owe themselves a visit to Chicago before Broadway, where new and classic productions abound through a vibrant Black theatre community. From musicals to classic plays to “hip-hoperas,” four playhouses in Chicago have a seat waiting for you.
Maat Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre raises the bar among Black theatre companies in America, with its specific concentration on African playwrights and dramatic stories originating on the African continent. It was formed in 1990 by a trio of University of Illinois graduates who desired a cultural and artistic outlet in which to connect themselves and the community around them to Africa. Since then, it has given rise to 26 premieres of main-stage productions and 17 touring shows with one goal in mind: to give the African voice its say on the American theatre stage. It has also produced community publications centered on the arts and hosted art exhibitions of up-and-coming artists. In addition, MPAACT offer dramatic training classes for actors. Plays such as “Trouble the Water” and “Blaxploitation” pushed the envelope of drama.
MPAACT’s meteoric rise as both a local and national contender can be attributed to the content it prefers to feature. Provocative without being exploitative, inclusive without being politically-correct, MPAACT spotlights fresh voices and stories that dazzle audiences with experimental forms, African-dance choreography and African language. Theatre-goers who attend an MPAAC performance can be prepared to explore themes more conservative theatres shun: mental health, suicide, rape, police brutality and queerness.
MPAACT partners with several theatres and playhouses throughout Chicago in order to bring audiences such timely events as African-centered theatre and dramatic adventures.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.MPAACT.org
Black Ensemble Theater
The name “Jackie Taylor” is synonymous with Black theatre in Chicago. Taylor began the Black Ensemble Theater in a small playhouse on the North Side of Chicago in 1976. Although an actress with early film credits in such classics as Cooley High and later roles in movies such as Losing Isaiah, Taylor yearned to make an impact on Chicago’s cultural history through her own productions that sent out progressive messages and images of Black people. The result was the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago, which raised $20 million dollars to re-open its doors in a brand new building on Chicago’s competitive North Side theatre district. Taylor still serves as its Founder and Executive Director.
Black Ensemble Theater exclusively presents Black bio-musicals, energetic and boisterous shows that feature at least 18 songs recorded by a living or historical legend. Every seat in the house gets up on their feet during energetic plays that have depicted the lives of Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass and Dionne Warwick. Its most famous and longest-running show may be The Jackie Wilson Story, which first opened in Chicago and regular runs nationally at such shows as The Apollo in Harlem. . Last Season, Taylor’s conception of a Black woman’s fairy tale came to life with “The Other Cinderella,” a show presenting some of BET’s best acting, dance and voice talent.
For information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.com.
The Eta Creative Arts Foundation
Chicagoans utter the letters “ETA” and think of far more than a playhouse nestled in the heart of Chicago’s South Side. Incorporated in 1971, Chicago’s ETA Creative Arts Foundation is a distinguished art gallery, weekly jazz stage, dramatic training ground, youth theater school and playwright development workshop. Television stars T’keyah “Krystal” Keymah (In Living Color, The Cosby Show) and film actor Mel Jackson (Soul Food, Living Single) began their acting careers on the ETA stage and in their classes. Co-founder Abena Joan Brown retired in 2011 after 40 years at the helm of the theater, and new president and chief executive Phillip Thomas inherited the mission to produce content relative to a new generation of Black theatergoers aged 20-40. Eta’s home is an expanse of property across from a vacant lot the foundation purchased to build a new home, a multi-level and multi-wing building to serve as Chicago’s Black cultural hub.
The theater is known for its high group sales to local churches and schools, as well as its fine selection of both classic and contemporary plays by nationally-awarded Black dramatists. They have regularly produced the popular play “Checkmates,” written by Ron Milner and starring Paul Winfield and Denzel Washington on Broadway in 1988. But what most sets Eta apart is it inclusion of youth-centered programming onstage and off—with a theater camp each summer, and family-friendly play selections. Eta was also among the first institutions in Chicago to strongly address youth violence in the community, with a 2011-2012 season full of plays that all addressed the theme of community strength and recovery from violence. The new season focuses on class Black plays by such legendary Black authors as Alice Childress and James Baldwin.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.etacreativearts.org.
Congo Square Theatre Company
Quintessential American playwright August Wilson held such admiration for Congo Square Theatre Company, an African-American theatre company he helped guide into creation in 1999, that it was among only 4 entities he designated to receive donations in his honor upon his 2005 death. As a donor, Advisory Council member and even audience member, Wilson recognized the commitment to cutting-edge stories and young Black talent that Congo Square has become known for in Chicago and nationwide. With its name originating from the nineteenth century district in New Orleans known as Congo Square, this relatively new institution has already managed to gain national recognition and stay alive with a seasonal offering of first-produced plays by award-winning young dramatists.
Congo Square is best-known throughout Chicago for its annual production of "The Nativity,"a perfect performance for Black residents and tourists during the holidays. The innovative piece fuses African dance with a telling of the Biblical events of Jesus Christ, while the second act features a journey through Black gospel music. Upon Wilson’s death, the company began the New Play Initiative (NPI), a commitment to attracting, selecting and producing the best never-before-heard Black playwrights in the country. To date, more than two dozen playwrights have seen their dream come true through Congo Square. Most recently, Congo Square produced a stellar city-wide celebration of the life and work of Walter Mosley, with panel discussions at the main Chicago Public Library and a staging reading of Mr. Mosley’s plays. Artistic Director Daniel Bryant selected the theme of identity—“i am”—for the 2012-2013 season.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.congosquaretheatre.org.
Kalisha Buckhanon is a writer in Chicago. You may visit her at www.Kalisha.com.