Chicago has a rich history of being one of the lead cities in performing arts and culture,cultivating a long line of talented African-American iconic figures over the decades in various areas of interests.
During a time referred to as the Black Renaissance period, the South Side of Chicago was the heart and soul of the burgeoning arts scene. The main corridor of activity was in Bronzeville, which was a hub of nightlife venues that included legendary speakeasies, ballrooms and the famous Regal Theatre, where many musical legends launched their careers.
In August 2004, the Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC) in Bronzeville opened its doors after a 10-year long process of fundraising, construction and controversial challenges. The building sits at the intersection of 47th and King Drive, where the original Regal Theatre was located. Initially under the direction of former Alderman Dorothy Tillman, the 1,000-plus seat venue has received mixed reviews by the community.
Over the last 10 years, HWCC has suffered some financial hurdles, limited productions and nearly missed having its doors closed in 2010 due to possible foreclosure.
Since the beginning, Executive Director Jimilita Tillman-Hunter has managed the facility and guided it to its original purpose as a performance arts and educational center. The daughter of Alderman Tillman, she isn’t a stranger to adversity and politics and believes the growing pains of running HWCC has been well worth it.
There are currently 10 performing arts programs running simultaneously out of HWCC in partnership with established organizations. This is the most programs that the cultural center has housed since its beginning. Tillman-Hunter said, “We were built primarily as an educational training facility, not necessarily an entertainment center. That was never a part of the plan for the Cultural Center; it’s always been to be where we’re at now.
“We’re actually evolving to square one, we’re going back to our original corporate charter and purpose in streamlining what we’re allowing to be done in the building and dictating a better environment that we want to pursue. As it pertains to the theater and the cultural arts center, overall we understand who we are on the scope of things nationally and internationally. It was just getting our community to believe in who we are and what it is to have a facility on 47th and King Drive where these types of activities can happen and take place,” Tillman-Hunter explained.
“Often times, a lot of organizations lose their funding. When they lose their funding, they lose their place and all of a sudden it breaks down. With us having a brick and mortar operation, we’re able to partner and assist with programming to give people a home and coverage for them to have their kids to participate – not only in their classes, but they also have a place where they can showcase.”
A Bustling Facility
On any given day, during after school hours, the building is bustling with students participating in a number of dance, poetry and acting classes. Some of these programs include: Stick N Move, IONA Calhoun School of Ballet, M.A.D.D Rhythms, Lanita Joseph Cultural Arts Dance, Lady Sol Presents, Ayodele Drum & Dance and Cassandra Bell Acting Studio, along with the Broadway in Bronzeville productions. One of its partnered programs, M.A.D.D. Rhythms, is a Chicago professional tap dance company that has created both a student-based program and an in-demand professional touring group. The company was started nearly 18 years ago by Founder and Executive Director, Bril Barrett. Starting out at South Shore Cultural
Center and working with the Chicago Park District, his organization gradually outgrew the venue and found themselves tackled with the problem of relocating to a bigger space. “Jimilita told us until we figure out what our next move was, we could come and be there at the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Many people said we should’ve moved downtown or closer near there, but M.A.D.D. means ‘Making A Difference Dancing Rhythms,’ so the whole thing has always been about making this art form accessible to young people in the community,” Barrett said. “Growing up, this is the way it was made accessible to me which allowed me to move forth with a career in tap dance. In the same way, I want to keep it accessible within our community.”
Barrett is mindful of the history of many artists before him and is reminded of this as posters of past events grace the cultural center’s walls. He mentions the legacies of tap dance greats such as Dr. Jeni LaGon and Leon Collins, both Chicago natives.
“Being able to tie it into the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and now when we came to Chicago, the only place we could be in was in this community, the Bronzeville community,” Barrett said. “That became our everything to the point that other people that didn’t want us their community would start coming to here to have a good time. This is where all the culture and arts were. When I talk about the history of tap, no matter where I’m at and who I’m talking to, I talk about the fight of the hoofers of old. Not only to be artists, but fighting to be heard and fighting to be considered human beings. Their circle for the art form is very different than any generation that came afterwards.”
A Production Pipeline
With safety being a major concern among parents, having access to programs that HWCC offers has become a sanctuary for both parents and students. Affordable lessons and accessibility is an ongoing challenge and the facility has done a good job building a solid reputation for assisting in this area.
Linda White is a parent and has her five-year old daughter enrolled in the Lanita Joseph Dance Group. She travels weekly from the South Shore community, making each dance class. White said, “At first, her dad didn’t agree with taking a hip hop dance class, but we discussed that instead of our daughter dancing outside, at least she’ll be doing it with other girls and it’ll be positive. She won’t be in the streets, but she’ll be a part of something special – growing up and knowing who she is as a strong female. I feel like her teacher is very positive.”
HWCC has become a member of the League of Chicago Theaters, which includes over 432 theaters in the Chicagoland area. Because they have built a solid following of young talent, they have become one of the top “go-to” outlets for professional casting agencies, film and theatre productions. They also work with celebrated companies such as Steppenwolf, Goodman Theatre, and they have a working relationship with Broadway in Chicago.
“When the casting calls happen and come down the pipeline, they contact the HWCC,” Tillman-Hunter says. “If they do Broadway in Chicago, or Empire and other productions, they’ll contact us. It’s a good feeling to think that we’re not an agency, but we’re a reliable source for hard working young people.”
Tillman-Hunter feels that all of the students’ hard work is paying off in a positive way. “I would say, the evolution of the arts in Chicago as a whole has been beneficial to HWCC because we hand out opportunities to carve out our niche in performing arts – dance, voice, music and theater. We’ll have classes, but also have the capabilities to produce an actual production.”
Although she feels the Harold Washington Cultural Center is on the right page after years of keeping the doors open and building the community’s confidence level to support their efforts –she admits there is still an invisible layer of racism.
“We operated off of 100 percent earned income. What this means in the theater world is that what you hunt, is what you eat. When we sell tickets to a show, when people buy an ad in the playbill or when people donate money in the envelopes – that’s how we stay open every day. We do not receive funding for operations at all,” Tillman-Hunter said.
“What I noticed about the art based programs in predominately non-Black areas, even in Latino communities is that they’re getting money for what is called ‘audience development’ so that they’re able to reach our population.”
As the Chicago Teacher’s Union prepares for a possible teacher’s strike, HWCC is also preparing to provide a safe haven for its student participants by working with retired educators in creating an alternative curriculum to keep students on track.
“We have educational services on standby to be in the building to help with math, science and test preparation. We will have activities and programs ready along with having our computer labs set up. We’re also partnering up with other agencies, park districts and libraries,” she says.
There is no doubt that the power of arts programming has nurtured some of our most brilliant minds within the Black community. As you drive throughout the neighborhoods of Greater Crossing, Englewood, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, Pullman, Chatham – the hub of the Great Migration – the spirits of Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Lou Rawls and others are ever present.
Ever since Craig Richardson enrolled his 11-year old son at 5 years old into the M.A.D.D. Rhythms dance program, he noticed a positive change in his son. He later enrolled his two 9-year old sons into the dance program.
Richardson said, “It helps develop focus. It also helps them to develop drive, determination and skills that translate into better academic performance.” He first heard about the tap dance program through a family friend and it’s been worth the drive and investment for his kids.
“My oldest son had an opportunity to dance with M.A.A.D Rhythms on the Steve Harvey Show a couple of years ago. So, there’s been a lot of good things to come out of this program for him,” Richardson said.
For more information on upcoming events and program enrollment: http://www.broadwayinbronzeville.com