ABENA JOAN BROWN ETA THEATRE FOUNDER PASSES
By Kai EL Zabar
After 40 years of commitment to the building of ETA Creative Arts Foundation South Siders were shocked when Abena Joan Brown announced in 2011 that she was retiring. Abena as she is known, had made every curtain call to implement consistency and impress upon the minds of those who supported the organization that ETA was here to stay. Her appearance was always one in which she welcomed the guests and then made her appeal for support. So when Abena let go of the reigns and moved on, many were looking for at least one book maybe a few to emerge out of her retirement. Instead she all but disappeared and stepped out very little.
Sunday, July 12, 2015, she made another exit. This time one that that has taken her way from this world as she passed away at 87 years old. She may have gone on but her contribution as president and chief executive officer of ETA Creative Arts Foundation is but one of many major efforts that she will be remembered for.
Abena built ETA Creative Arts Foundation and led it into a major presence to be reckoned with in the Black Community joining Chicago’s league of community theatres. She used her corporate background as an Executive at the YWCA to benefit our community. While still wearing her corporate hat she, along with others founded Ebony Talent Associates in 1969. However in 1971, it became the only African American full service cultural arts collective in the nation.
For those of us who have known her we will always remember her as a powerful force, a shrewd and masterful businesswoman, who understood the necessity for a plan, and the actual need to work the plan. She understood the connection of money to power and the ability to be self-determined. She understood the importance of a foundation grounded and steeped in the history of who you are, where you come from and where you are going. She valued the significance of telling our own stories. So for years she labored to refine the vision she had of ETA Creative Arts Foundation. She put her masters degree in the cultivation of Community Organization and Management from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service administration to work for and contribute to the development and growth of cultural institutions and was a staunch advocate for Black theatre in Chicago.
When it was time to work the plan Abena put her money where her mouth was investing her own money as she solicited money from others who rallied to her aid and by 1978 ETA had moved to its current home. Originally purchased as a 15,000 square foot facility at 7558 S. Chicago Ave to be renovated–it became the spacious 250 seat theater, with ample gallery space with classrooms, and studios for ETA programs in theater, music, and the visual arts.
Under her leadership as CEO Abena ETA provided full time jobs for those in the arts, nurtured innumerable young playwrights, visual artist, actors, production crews and always insisted that the work represent authentic Black stories as told by Black people. To her credit she produced one hundred-fifty professional theater productions.
Her greatest challenge was raising the necessary funds to run and operate the facility. She inevitability throughout her 40 years with the company she’d make solicit the audience for its invaluable support and in doing so she kept the business flowing. Her business sense led her to create a form relationships and alliances with powerful decision makers in the business world who could assist in her fundraising efforts.
ETA was a work in progress and so she had a vision of expanding it, however her tenacity and fearlessness gave into time and age and did not happen before she retired even though the organization received a million dollar grant her board was not able to bring the vision to fruition.
With Abena Joan Brown gone the organization will have to re-examine its direction and strategy, since she did the ground work in connecting ETA to the funding community. However much of that has eroded. The new management has quickly learned that fundraising is challenging.
Runako Jahi Long time protégée and Artistic director at ETA says, “What Abena did for me personally, was to recognize my abilities and how they could be best utilized. Her legacy is to provide Blacks opportunities to triumph through the telling of their own stories. It was important to me that I could find my soul through it. When ETA was founded, only Kuumba Theater led by Abena’s close friend Val Gray ward was presenting Black works rather than taking the work of white playwrights and performing them in Chicago. Abena led the way by reserving the right to tell our stories our way. She changed the paradigm and in doing so set a precedence.”
Her many honors include an Award of Merit from the Black Theater Alliance, The Paul Robeson Award from the Chicago African American Arts Alliance, the Governor’s Award in the Arts and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Joseph Jefferson Committee. Brown has also been cited as one of America’s Top Business and Professional Women by Dollars and Sense magazine, and she was inducted into the Women’s Hall