A Chicago woman known as a visionary and a pioneer in the African-American theater community died Sunday.
Abena Joan Brown was one of the founders of the eta Creative Arts Foundation, which she headed until her 2011 retirement. She mentored playwrights, actors and visual artists at the South Side performing and cultural arts group, which calls itself “Chicago’s first and only Afri-centric professional performance and training cultural arts center.”
She steered the group to buy and renovate a 15,000-square-foot facility with a 200-seat theater, galleries, studios and classrooms. She later headed the acquisition of a whole city block to allow for later expansion, according to eta.
A close friend of hers, Dr. Carol Adams, the retired head of the DuSable Museum of African American history described Brown as “amazing, brilliant, creative and bold, very bold.” Adams said Brown was a great strategic thinker and charismatic person who pulled people along with her.
Adams said the roots of eta and Brown’s advocacy grew out of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and the riots that followed, when some national aid agencies refused to step in and help with relief efforts.
Brown was Director of Program Services at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and and was part of a larger circle involved in the social services at the time, according to library records at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Adams, who was part of the group, said they were upset by the lack of response, and they started discussing whether their ultimate responsibility was to their agencies or to the people they served.
Out of those talks, Brown helped form the Ebony Talent Agency Creative Arts Foundation booking agency, which became the eta collective, along with Women Mobilized for Change, an activist group that tackled issues including school desegregation, anti-war efforts and equal housing. Adams said Brown was a driving force behind getting the YWCA to push for an end to racism, too.
“She wanted to get things done,” Adams said. “She was not a person who wanted to just discuss a problem.”
Adams said it was difficult for African-American playwrights to get their work performed and for actors to find enough work at the time. Brown helped provide a venue where work could be seen about African-Americans, by African-Americans.
Brown was often asked if she’d consider moving her theater from its South Side location to downtown.
“She said that she thought that was ridiculous. Why couldn’t we have theater in our own community?” Adams said. “Why couldn’t people travel there?”
Even though most people thought of Brown as an administrator, she was a “formidable actress” herself, Adams said. Brown served roles including company manager, director, producer and fundraiser. She had more than 200 professional theater credits to her name, and was a participant in the First Black Theatre Summit run by playwright August Wilson.
“She understood every aspect of the theater, and she had done all of it,” Adams said. “She used to say, ‘I’ve sold tickets, I’ve built sets, I’ve acted, I’ve done the whole thing. I know this.’”
Brown mentored generations of artists involved in theater and the other arts, an influence that’s still felt across the nation, Adams said, adding Brown was known for telling artists and students they could do anything they want, “just make a plan and let’s go.”
That’s how the “Africa Express,” an effort to bring students to Africa and other parts of the diaspora, began.
“Her students said, ‘Oh, wow, they’d love to go to Africa one day,’” Adams said. “They said it as if it were a dream or something that was impossible to achieve. So
Abena said, ‘Let’s go.’”
One of the people Brown mentored, Kemati Porter, is now interim executive director of eta.
“She has a warrior spirit,” Porter said. “She was always at the forefront leading us, instructing us, helping us understand our voice and its place in the world.”
Porter said Brown gave people a place to hone their skills, gain employment in the arts and find that voice.
Brown got her bachelor’s from Roosevelt University and a master’s in community organization and management from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Chicago State University awarded her an honorary doctorate.
She won numerous artistic and community honors, and served on multiple boards, including as chair of the Advisory Board of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.
“We’ve really lost a cultural icon,” Porter said. “Abena’s part of a generation of artists and cultural activists that we likely may not see again.”
Funeral arrangements are still pending.
Lynette Kalsnes covers religion, arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her @lynettekalsnes.