Black Ensemble Theater: Quo Vadis?

December 6, 2011

The major theater event of the last month, and one of the most important arts events of the year, was the November 18 opening of the Black Ensemble Cultural Center at 4450 N. Clark Street, the culmination of a long-held dream and 35 years of survival in a dicey business on the part of Black Ensemble founder and executive director, Ms. Jackie Taylor. Purpose-built from the ground up at a cost of $16 million (as announced at the groundbreaking in September, 2011) or $19 million (as reported at the time of the recent ribbon cutting), the facility includes a mainstage theater, a studio theater, rehearsal space, classrooms, public gallery space, and offices.

When the first shovel of earth was turned just 14 months ago, the line-up of notables in attendance featured Mayor Daley, Gov. Quinn, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, State Sen. Kwame Raoul and at least a dozen assorted aldermen, state representatives and foundation CEO’s and corporate honchos. Never have I seen more ducks lined up in a straighter row. The Black Ensemble Cultural Center was writ in the stars and Jackie Taylor appeared to be fulfilling her manifest destiny.

Now the new venture is up and running and the Big Question for me is addressed directly to Jackie, whom I’ve known since Day One of the Black Ensemble and maybe longer: When are you going to announce an innovative new artistic plan for your company?

To the disappointment of some, Taylor chose to open her dream venue by taking a step backwards and offering a new production of her eleven year old success, The Jackie Wilson Story (running through January 8 and perhaps longer). To be sure, it’s as solidly-produced a show as the Black Ensemble always offers, and the talent on display and musical bang-for-the-buck it provides are splendid, as always. There are a cooking seven-piece band, gifted singers and dancers and a star who channels the biographical subject to an uncanny degree, as always.

And there’s the rub: “as always.” For the last decade or longer, the Black Ensemble has followed a tried-and-true formula of offering “greatest hits” musical biographies of many leading lights of Black music, chiefly drawn from blues, early rock and R&B genres (although not always). The gala opening season Taylor has announced between now and next June offers five cookie-cutter shows, musical bios of Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and various Ladies of Soul (Aretha, Gladys, Diana, etc.).

But you don’t move into $16 million or $19 million of new facilities to keep on keepin’ on with the same old same-old. There have to be ambitions beyond a new playhouse and attached parking and more parking across the street. I know Jackie had such ambitions once upon a time, genuine artistic ambitions. And maybe now she needs to look to her own past in order to look forward. I’m certainly not the only one (heaven help me, I can’t be the only one!) who remembers when the Black Ensemble Theater produced serious African-American drama before August Wilson came along. Anyone recall when the troupe did plays by Ed Bullins and Lorraine Hansberry?

Taylor also produced, among many others, Medea by Euripides and A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember so clearly Jackie’s answer when I asked her “Why Streetcar?” in which she played Blanche Dubois. “It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play before I get too old, and no mainstream theater company is going to give me a chance to play it,” she said. A little vain, perhaps, but absolutely valid.

But where are those plays now? Where are the opportunities for the Black Ensemble’s gifted artists (although not an acting ensemble, despite the name) to appear in great plays of proven caliber? To take on classics and modern works of social and dramatic interest? To stretch their chops in mainstream repertory they probably won’t have a chance to play elsewhere? To do what the Black Ensemble used to do? To follow—quite literally—in Jackie Taylor’s footsteps?

I don’t say the Black Ensemble never should do a jukebox musical about a great popular artist. Its long string of biographical musical revues (which is what they are) has given employment and a spotlight to many, many, many people and certainly has kept the troupe alive at the box office. But the company no longer can justify such shows as its steady and only diet and live up to its name. Taylor herself has been involved in a majority of Black Ensemble productions as writer and/or director as well as producer, which hardly is an ensemble approach to art or to craft. The company’s Board of Directors has successfully raised a ton of money to provide Taylor with the facilities to do more, and now she needs to do it.

Yes, the Black Ensemble has various outreach and educational programs, but so does every other non-profit theater of any size or substance in town. And, yes, the Black Ensemble has a Black Playwrights Initiative, which offers various types of in-kind support for two dozen writers. However, the work coming out of this program and moving into production—at least so far—is standard Black Ensemble material: scripts for biographical musicals. These programs are costly for any theater company to maintain, large or small, but it’s completely counter-intuitive to support them by turning your mainstage series—the main event for any theater company—into a cash cow of repetitive audience-pleasing shows. A theater company has to take risks and lead its audience to challenging material.

In her message in the opening program, Ms. Taylor promises “African, Japanese and Mexican Culture in 2012 with some unique one-time performance programming” and that’s an OK start for a cultural center in a racially and ethnically diverse ‘hood such as Uptown. But it’s not the same as a fundamental and primary artistic commitment to better, more profound theater and the nurturing of a true ensemble in some form.

Some may say, “Gosh darn it, Jonathan, give them time! They’ve just opened their new doors. You can’t expect everything right away.” But the point is that I’m laying down a dare to Jackie Taylor and the Black Ensemble Theater and the Black Ensemble Cultural Center and its Board of Directors, and there really isn’t a good time to lay down a dare; you just do it. I’m not asking the impossible. I am asking Ms. Jackie Taylor, who is an exceedingly capable and determined individual, to be true to herself and the artist she has been.