Chicago’s Black Theater Community Bounces Back

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected the entertainment world; while the film and television industry sustained via streaming services, theater, because of its reliance upon the energy from a live audience, had to completely go dark.

Theater venues have reopened, even if only in a limited capacity, but what does this mean for Chicago’s African-American arts community, which already had to compete with mainstream theaters for patronage before the pandemic?

We spoke with Daryl Brooks, Producing Managing Director, Black Ensemble Theater, and Kenya Thomas, Executive Director, eta Creative Arts Foundation, about bouncing back from the pandemic, the social impact of the arts, and why “the show must go on” for 2022.

Initial thoughts at the start of the pandemic: 

Brooks: My first thought was “Uh oh!” and then it immediately shifted to safety and taking care of the staff and actors because there was so much uncertainty.

Thomas: “What do we do now?” Of course, we didn’t know how the pandemic would pan out, but we knew it was serious. And we knew we had to do something quickly. We thought about our patrons and the community, and we also thought about our actors and our artists. We were just in a very confused state.

On re-imagining productions and performances: 

Brooks: We had our performers shoot themselves over Zoom and our marketing team edited everything. We streamed those performances for our audience and people loved it.

Thomas: We had to figure out a way to still deliver something to the community because we don’t have the financial or media backing like the bigger theaters. So we did the best we could by producing a virtual season and we were able to put some of it out there.

On the pandemic and the impact of social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion among the arts community:  

Brooks: It made us introspective about the theater world and the world, in general. We realized we could be doing more and that now was absolutely the time to do it. We’ll be doing more panel discussions on race and we’re making sure we hold other [mainstream]  theater companies accountable, whether it be on the stage, backstage, or in the boardrooms.

Thomas: We put together our virtual production, “Voices of Protests,” which was relatable to what was going on in the moment–like police brutality and the deaths. The outcome was nowhere near what it would’ve been if we had done an in-person stage production, but we did try to do something.

On looking ahead towards the 2022 season:

Brooks: We have a lot coming up this year, including My Brother Langston, which is about the life of Langston Hughes. And at least through 2022, we’ll have a limited cast size, limited theater seating, and you have to be masked for our shows.

Thomas:  Right now, eta is in an amazing place. We’re working on our 51st season and we’re in the beginning stages of major renovation to our existing building. We’re also creating more jobs and opportunities for the community, including building a recording studio for music artists and we also just launched our new eta University, which is a cluster of classes that we created.

As for safety protocols, we’re doing temperature checks and are asking for vaccination cards or a negative COVID-19 test to ensure the safety of our patrons who come inside the theater.

For more information on the upcoming theater season, please visit Black Ensemble Theater and eta Creative Arts Foundation.

LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and arts and entertainment enthusiast. Find her on social media @MsWilliamsWorld.

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