Jackie Taylor, the founder and artistic director of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater, is staring at an utterly transformative fall.
On Nov. 18, the $19 million new Black Ensemble Theater will open at the hitherto moribund 4450 North Clark St., currently a desert of barred windows and dead storefronts on Chicago's North Side. Virtually overnight, this new facility — which features a 299-seat main stage, a 150-seat studio theater, covered parking, rehearsal studios, classrooms, music rooms, huge offices, bars, a spectacular glass lobby and even a roof garden ideal for parties — will turn a theater that has spent the last 24 years in the scruffy basement of an aging Hull House into a major Midwest arts institution.
Among nonprofit theaters in Chicago, this new 4450 North Clarkcomplex will be eclipsed (in terms of the size and quality of its building) only by Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And it will, of course, be the newest of that group. The new Black Ensemble will far bigger than the physical plant of Court Theatre, Lookingglass or any of the other venerable theatrical institutions that dot this arts-loving city. Indeed, it is hard to think of a company dedicated to African-American theater anywhere in the nation with a physical facility that's even remotely comparable.
In the arts community in Chicago, the new Black Ensemble Theater will be turning a lot of heads this fall.
Predictably, Taylor, who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing projects and who built this theater company despite little formal training and few resources, is unbowed.
"When you were over there," Taylor said last week, as she sat in her current Beacon Street building (just around the corner from the new theater), "did they show you the building across the street? Did they point to the new Black Ensemble School of Performing Arts? Did they point to Jackie's Soul Food Cafe, where you'll be able to get ribs, chicken wings and all the stuff that's not good for you?"
Those projects, of course, are for the future. But the new theater, where construction workers are currently putting in elevators and drywall, is very much in the present (according to Paul Kartcheske, the recently hired general manager, construction is exactly on schedule). The main stage soars to an impressive 80 feet and features a full 70-seat balcony.
"I will have a rigging system, which I don't have now," Taylor said. "A fly system, which I don't have now. We will have a small theater in which we can experiment. Even though my audience likes to come for the fried chicken, we will now be able to offer them a whole smorgasbord."
The new buffet won't come cheap. In the first year, Taylor said, the budget of the company will double from $2 million to $4million and in the next couple of years, it will double again. The new theater will have twice the seating capacity of the old, and thus there will be twice as many seats to sell. As the company changes its contract with the Actors' Equity union — moving up in its tiered Chicago-area contracts — artists' salaries will rise significantly, as will the number of union jobs.
Black Ensemble is an unusual institution in many ways, but not least because its programming has been almost entirely home-grown musicals celebrating the history of black music: rock, blues, jazz, soul and all of their roots and offspring. Almost all the shows have been written by Taylor herself and have used jukebox classics, especially songs recorded between 1950-1970. Attracted by the backlists of artists such as Otis Redding, Dionne Warwick and many others, audiences long have found their way to the old Beacon Street Theater , where diversity has not been an aim so much as a self-evident reality. With her kinetic post-show speeches and famously ebullient pitches for money and support, Taylor has not only indelibly stamped this theater with her own personality, she has cultivated a warm and inclusive ambience dedicated to uplift and to the community.
None of that, she insists, will change in the fancy new digs. Black Ensemble is not about to do, say, "Dreamgirls" or other pre-existing musicals or plays. "There are 200 other theaters in Chicago," Taylor said. "They can do all that."
This explosive fall brings some questions and challenges, of course. Black Ensemble will have to rapidly expand its infrastructure to manage its new reality (Kartcheske will manage the building). It will have to cope with the logistics of adding reserved seating for the first time, dealing with Ticketmaster and other changes. Its hitherto modest production values will have to be amplified to fill the larger space. It will have to attract bigger audiences. It will have to improve its very limited national profile. And, above all, it will have to raise more philanthropic dollars. There will also be some who wonder why such an extraordinary new facility did not rise on the South Side, the center of black culture in Chicago, even though Taylor long has plied her trade in Uptown, where the population is diverse.
But Taylor has a compelling life story and a popular, proven product, so she enjoys uncommon support from funders and politicians. At the ceremonial start of construction, an array of African-American business leaders and politicians were joined by Gov. Pat Quinn and departing Mayor Richard M. Daley. In terms of public support for this building, Taylor got in just under the wire.
But that has long been her modus operandi. In November — assuming all goes well — she will open with a reprise staging of what was Black Ensemble Theater's best show and greatest hit: "The Jackie Wilson Story," which is, like every show here, also the Jackie Taylor Story.