Effective immediately, eta Creative Arts Foundation co-founder and president Abena Joan Brown will step down. Former Development Director Phillip Thomas has assumed the role of chief executive.
Ms. Brown has shepherded the company for 40 years, and until recently appeared at every curtain call to solicit support for its work. When she failed to appear at a recent performance, there was speculation that she might be ill. But publicist Barbara Kensey said, “She is just tired, and she knows that life is short and then you die and it’s time to go home and work on other things. She’s got some books inside of her that she needs to get out. The organization has identified this young man bringing a new or renewed vision and he’s going to take it into the next century.”
Brown built eta Creative Arts Foundation into a major presence in the Black community, with theater and the performing arts at the core of eta’s programs. Brown led the way in the early years to the purchase and renovation of a 15,000 square foot facility at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue (sic), which houses a spacious 250 seat theater, ample gallery space, plus classrooms and studios for eta’s programs in theater, music and the visual arts. As CEO, Brown has produced several hundred theatrical productions, music and dance events and overseen numerous gallery installations.
In the course of the last 20 years, eta drew up an ambitious plan for an even larger purpose-built complex directly across the street from the present eta, on vacant land which eta owns. Despite the support of elected officials at the local and state levels, and a $1 million grant some years back under the Build Illinois program, Brown and her Board have not been able to bring the plan to fruition, although a ground-breaking ceremony has seemed to be in the offing more than once.
Brown has been nothing if not tenacious: patrons of eta’s theater productions over many years are used to her nightly curtain speeches, introducing every member of the company and making her plea—again and again—for financial help in fulfilling the eta dream. Last time I was at eta, a matter of weeks ago, Brown was not there and the post-show pitch was missing. Perhaps age and weariness have caught up with Abena Joan Brown. Perhaps there’s recognition that younger leadership, already well-connected to the funding community, can take eta Creative Arts to the next step.
Brown has kept eta alive while many other once-influential South Side theater organizations dating back to the 1970’s have come and gone, among them Kuumba, XBAG and the Chicago Theatre Company. Still, it must have been painful for her to see the North Side’s Black Ensemble Theater break ground last September on a $16 million complex after only several years of planning and fundraising.
While Ms. Brown’s age is a well-kept secret, Mr. Thomas is in his mid-forties. He served as eta’s development director for four years in the mid-1990s and then became a program officer in community development at the Chicago Community Trust. He left that post to return to eta as its chief executive officer.
Brown is retaining her seat on the eta board and is expected to remain involved with the organization. The theater program remains under the guidance of long time artistic director Runako Jahi.
Jonathan Abarbanel contributed to this report.