The Chicago Defender had a chance to sit down recently with Grammy Award singer and music legend Dionne Warwick, who was in town to prepare for the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Black Ensemble Theater (BET).
Warwick is the chairwoman of the 40th season of the theater and BET founder and CEO Jackie Taylor said she could not name another person more worthy of that honor.
“Dionne Warwick has been with us for a while now, at least 10 years,” Taylor said. “She is the interior designer of the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center. It looks so beautiful because Dionne designed the interior so magnificently that people are in awe when they walk in the door.
“So, in celebration of surviving for 40 years and where we’re at at 40 years – Dionne has played a great role in that. She was the chair for our capital campaign and came in to raise money to build the new theater.”
Dionne Warwick is in the elite group of timeless voices that still capture many long-time and new fans. Her distinctive repertoire of music has spanned over five decades, producing countless hits such as “Walk On By”, “I Say a Little Prayer,” and her first single release, “Don’t Make Me Over.”
She’s shared ballad hits with fellow singers Johnny Mathis and Barry Gibb. Most people are familiar with Warwick through her countless appearances on the 1980’s hit show, “Solid Gold,” and when she later shared the international stage on “That’s What Friends Are For” alongside Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. The hit song brought awareness to the AIDS epidemic.
Before Taylor had started the build-out on the new theater, she approached Warwick to read the stage script of “Don’t Make Me Over.”
Warwick recalls their encounter: “I became involved on two different levels. One, when I first met Jackie, she kind of bulldozed me into reading this little script, ‘Don’t Make Me Over.’ At first, I though it was quite flattering that somebody would think of doing something of that nature. Later, I came to see the show and I actually enjoyed it immensely. I saw it twice.”
Throughout her career, Warwick has traveled the world entertaining people from all walks of life, but she has never forgotten her performances earlier in her career visiting Chicago.
“We didn’t know there was another theater in town besides the Regal Theater,” she says. “We’re going back to the early 1960s, when I first played Chicago. It was the kind of show that I was very much accustomed to doing when I played the Apollo Theater and the Brooklyn Box.
“Those shows that had at least 8-10 acts. I got a chance to rub elbows with those entertainers who were really setting the bar for everyone to follow – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. I mean, shoulders that I’m standing on today.”
But the singer encountered some resistance in the beginning because her voice and style were not considered “Black” enough or in the same traditional manner of other soul singers. Acclaimed WVON radio jock, E. Rodney Jones was the first to dispel these stereotypes by breaking her hit song “Déjà vu” before any other radio station in the country.
“He felt for that I should be played on his radio station when they were not playing the Dionne Warwick type of music on the station. But, he felt ‘Why not? She looked like me so why not give her the opportunity?’ for which I’m grateful for. From that point on, everything has always been wonderful for me. Chicago has broken that record for me—I have nothing but wonderful memories,” Warwick said.
The Black Ensemble Theater has a mission of eradicating racism and upholding the cultural history of sharing Black history through musical legacy. Jackie Taylor has opened the theater to a widespread audience and includes various ranges of educational programming.
Jackie Taylor has opened the theater to a wide-spread audience which includes various ranges of educational programming. Founded in 1976, the Black Ensemble Theater has produced more than 100 productions and employed over 5,000 artists.
“It’s giving those who may already know an opportunity to refresh their memories, but it’s also introducing our babies to something they have to know – not saying they ‘should’ or ‘might,’ but they ‘have to know’, in order to keep excelling themselves,” says Warwick.
All season-long, the Black Ensemble Theater will be presenting its popular productions to reflect the 40-year history in high quality production and audience experience.
Return productions such as “Don’t Make Me Over” (April 9-May15), “The Marvin Gaye Story” (June 4-July 10), “The Jackie Wilson Story” (July 30-September 4), along with the inaugural production of the “The Other Cinderella (November 26-January, 2017) will be playing throughout the year.
With the Illinois State budget crisis being the center of various arts and culture programs shutting down or pulling back on necessary resources—the Black Ensemble Theater is weathering the storm. Taylor explains the theater company’s survival simply and in her very direct way. “The Black Ensemble Theater is an organization that I want to survive on its own,” she says. “Not depending on this money, but generating its revenue well enough not only to survive, but to build a reserve and foundation – well beyond Jackie Taylor’s lifetime.”
As for building a sustainable institution that values the creative arts and nurtures future talent, Dionne Warwick—mother and grandmother believes never using the word ‘can’t’ is the secret to a successful journey in life.
“That happened because of my fourth grade teacher, sitting in the back of my class. She was working on a problem on the blackboard and I kept on saying, ‘I can’t do that.’ Next thing I know, she called me up to the front of the classroom and told me to write on the chalkboard, ‘AMER-I-CAN’. She asked me what did it say? I said, ‘American’,” Warwick quietly smiles, “She asked me did I see a ‘T’ anywhere? So can’t is not a form of my vocabulary and never will be.”
For more information on the Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th Anniversary Celebration: http://www.blackensembletheater.org