As the president and co-founder of the eta Creative Arts Foundation, Abena Joan Brown says that, as a visionary, she understands the importance of the arts to the African American community.
As the president and co-founder of the eta Creative Arts Foundation, Abena Joan Brown says that, as a visionary, she understands the importance of the arts to the African American community. Before she took on her respective role, her parents enrolled her in dance classes at the age of 3. “Culturally, in earlier generations, all the children took a lesson of some kind. You took dance, music, or drama. Not that your parents thought you were going to be an artist in the way we define it now, but that it would develop your character and help you develop as a person,” Brown told the Defender. Now a historical part of the arts community in Chicago and recognized nationally, Brown appreciated the lessons she received. But her parents instilled the importance of education in her rather than choosing a career in the arts. She focused on her studies and earned a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University and a master’s degree in community organization and management from the University of Chicago. However, her admiration for the arts remained. Surrounded by the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement, her relationship with the arts never took a backseat as she danced at local clubs to pay for college. But it wasn’t until a friend invited her to take part in a play that she would find her true calling. “We were in a group called Drama Incorporated. We learned how to do the whole business,” Brown explained. “A woman named Lillian Tompkins organized the group in the late ’50s. We learned the acting, stage management, how to build sets, costuming…it was a training ground.” Besides being inspired by her peers, her travels to Africa also brought her full circle and made her realize the importance of sharing and preserving the African American story. “I went to Africa and various parts of the Diaspora. And this all related to a cultural paradigm because it had to do with identity. Africa was an eye opener,” she said. “You see not only yourself but you see your cousins, momma, daddy, and you realize the connection of African people. Plus the whole historical reference of what we have done culturally, particularly in the United States, which has manifested all over the world. The irony (is) that we were brought here in the way we were and we are now the initiators of world culture.” From there, Brown decided to create a destination for African Americans to not only tell their stories, but a place where they could acquire and develop skills that would strengthen the community culturally. She knew the Black theater wasn’t anything new, but the lack of having one centralized space for Black artists to cultivate their talent and produce their own work was. “We’ve had theater since 1895 but mostly and continuously in other people’s buildings,” she explained. We did theater mostly in churches and places of that sort. YMCA’s, YWCA’s – wherever we could. We produced at colleges…wherever we could find a space.” Her objective was to build a cultural district that was what she called “smack dab in the middle.” Following the philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois, she wanted the location to be in a neighborhood that African Americans could have easy access to. Despite having this great idea, she faced some critics. But it wasn’t enough to alter her plans. “People used to ask, ‘Why do you want Black theater?’ I said, ‘why not?’” she explained. Then in 1971, her vision finally came to life when the eta Creative Arts Foundation was founded. The foundation is housed at 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. And has purchased nearby land for future expansion. “We renovated it so everything that’s in here, we put it here. It was just an old factory building. There were a lot of steps in between but we moved in this facility, January 1, 1979.” The arts company – which helped produce successful actors such as Kel Mitchell, Mel Jackson and T’Keyah “Crystal” Keymah – is home to a library, art gallery, and a 200-seat theater, as well as a visual arts gallery that showcases artwork from various local and national artists. eta has produced over 180 productions, and has several training initiatives for adults and children, including acting, lighting, sound and many other programs. It also hosts a seven-week camp for children entitled, “Chicago On The Nile,” and has brought forth new initiatives including poetry jams and Music Mondays with a concentration on cabaret and classical jazz. Brown received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Chicago State University and was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame of Chicago. She also received The Paul Robeson Award from the Chicago African American Arts Alliance and the Governor’s Award in the Arts, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Joseph Jefferson Committee, and many other accolades. She is head of the only African American cultural institution in the world that has an endowment. Despite the current financial gloom that the country is facing, Brown is determined to see her goals and objectives for eta come to fruition. “As one lives and begins to fully understand the role of the arts as an expression of culture, then one comes to understand that it is through culture and its various manifestations, that we begin to understand who we are, where we are, and were we ought to be going,” she explained. “So this is the planning part of it…the institutionalization of it. We want eta in its various manifestations and program delivery to be around for generations to come. That’s what institutions do, right?”