12:18 PM CDT, November 4, 2011
Most arts organizations have carefully worded mission statements, filled with arty buzzwords and forged by groups. Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater's mission statement was written by one woman and just gets right down to it: "to eradicate racism."
Most arts organizations struggle to achieve diversity. They self-examine, apply for grants, celebrate relatively small amounts of minority participation. Diverse audiences find Black Ensemble all by themselves. A slim majority of its seats have always been filled by African-Americans, but whites and other folks also have flocked to the theater. That balance — crucial, if your mission is to eradicate racism — has been in place for decades.
Most arts organizations are run by well-trained people who came from relatively privileged backgrounds where the arts were prized. Black Ensemble Theater was founded 35 years ago by a woman who not only grew up in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, but who was, in school, stuck in the class designed for the Cabrini-Green children who were likely to get into the most trouble.
On Nov. 18, when Black Ensemble Theater officially opens its new $19 million home at 4450 N. Clark St. — currently a blank and depressing block of the North Side artery, soon to be filled with music and pizazz — the remarkable achievement of Jackie Taylor, the ebullient founder, artistic director and lifeblood, will be illuminated by the brightest spotlight it has yet seen.
The governor of Illinois is expected. So are Dionne Warwick, numerous politicians, business leaders, community organizers. There will surely be much praising of the woman dancing in the light, the woman who figured out that original, locally produced biographical shows about black music and musicians were the ideal tools to persuade Chicagoans from different neighborhoods, and with different lives, to come together in Jackie's House, for a good time.
It is understood by all why this new theater is here. Other worthy African-American arts groups are still trying to build infrastructure and fund new facilities. Taylor, 60, whose persistence in the face of adversity has few peers, has the very theater she wanted built and done, in fine style, in her own community, and right in the teeth of a brutal recession.
'The Other Cinderella' (1976)
"I had formed the Black Ensemble Theater that year. And I was also a new teacher at Byrd (Community Academy, near Cabrini-Green). I was a schoolteacher, and my kids were crazy. I had to get a handle on them. Disney's 'Cinderella' had just come on TV. It was all white. I am black, and I had 230 black kids looking at my face. So I said, 'We're not going to do that Cinderella; we're going to do "The Other Cinderella."' I found a theater for rent at 1429 N. Wells St. I knew I wanted to stay in my community. So that was that. This became our 'Christmas Carol.'"
'Muddy Waters: The Hoochie-Coochie Man' (1985)
"Jimmy Tillman (the longtime Black Ensemble musical director) was a teacher at the same school. He had produced a show based on the life of Muddy Waters with the kids. I was struggling to find a niche that would bring different audiences into the theater. We were all black, but our mission was to eradicate racism, so we had to find a way to bring people together and get them talking. Jimmy said that the blues already did that, and so we hit on the idea of using black music."
'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1986)
"This was a huge hit. I played Blanche. I had always thought Tennessee Williams was one of the greatest playwrights. All of his work crosses over. I could see my black experience in Williams' work, so I figured this was a good show to do. People would say, 'How are you going to do a black Tennessee Williams?' Now people do it all the time, but back then we would have critics come in with the script, looking at what we were doing. And people from all over came to see the show."
'The Story of Otis Redding' (1987)
"The Uptown Hull House on Beacon Street had become my home. The president of the Hull House had called me and said they would like to have the programs I did for problem students, the kids who were failing in school. I said, 'OK, but I have a theater company, so I will need a theater.' And after that, they really embraced our theater, and it became a very supportive place to work. We started to take on our own identity at the Hull House."
'Wang Dang Doodle' (1998)
"This was the story of Koko Taylor, and the first show where we really worked with the actual musician. It was a blast. I got to go with Koko to all of the clubs, to be her guest and go to her home. Koko was one of the greatest. After that, we worked with a lot of musicians. A lot of them would come to us. I started thinking that I had to build Black Ensemble as an institution. We had to get our house together. I had to get it out from under the foot of Jackie Taylor."
'Elvis Presley Was a Black Man' (1999)
"We had started talking about building our building. We wanted to create excitement, controversy and draw attention to the company. I said, 'I don't know what the show will be about, but I have the perfect production, and don't you love the title?' And it was true. They needed someone who could deliver black music and still keep all the white parents happy. And they found Elvis, whom I loved."
'The Jackie Wilson Story' (2000)
"This was the show that propelled us into the national arena. I told Chester Gregory (who played Jackie Wilson) that I was going to write a show for him. I told him he needed a vehicle. And then I said that when we tour it to New York, they will pick you up right away. And that's exactly what happened when we got to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. They told Chester that they wanted him for 'Hairspray' on Broadway."
'WVON Story' (2003)
"WVON came to me. It was their anniversary, and they asked if I would produce a show based on a radio station. I said, 'Are you kidding?!' I don't know how many whuppings I got over WVON (when I was young). I was supposed to be in bed by 9 p.m., but Herb Kent was on later, and I would put the radio underneath my pillow. These were the guys who shaped my childhood. They were more than disc jockeys. When they told us we had to stay home during the riots, we stayed home. We listened to them and did what they told us to do."
'Don't Make Me Over — A Tribute to Dionne Warwick' (2006)
"I hunted Dionne down. When I was a kid in Cabrini, they targeted the 30 of us whom they thought were the worst kids, the ones likely to go to jail or get pregnant. One of the things they did with us was take us to a concert, and the person who was singing was Dionne Warwick at the Chicago Theatre. I'd never seen anyone so classy and gorgeous and with such a beautiful voice. It blew my mind. She made me think that we can all do great things."
'The Jackie Wilson Story' (Reprise) (2011)
"I cried at rehearsal last night. This really is a phenomenal time. And now? I'd like to do more acting; I had to put that career on hold. I really want to play Mama in 'A Raisin in the Sun.' I've never seen that role played the way I envision her. But here at the theater, in the 2012 season, I've listed some of the people I've wanted to do for a long time: Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, James Brown. Smokey Robinson hasn't said yes yet. But I call up and ask every year. 'Hi,' I always say, 'I'm Jackie Taylor.'"
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