Chicago’s robust theater scene is indeed a cultural force; however, when it comes to recognizing the contributions of African Americans to the city’s artistic landscape, there is still some work to do.
In his new book, “Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater,”an encyclopedic endeavor that takes a deep dive into the city’s theater community, arts aficionado Mark Larson addresses this under-representation by devoting a portion of the project to theater directed, performed and produced by black artists on the city’s south side.
Through the book’s extensive journey of Chicago’s theater history (it took 4.5 years to complete), when it comes to groundbreaking black actors and ensembles, Larson admits to having learned a lot along the way. “I didn’t know a lot,” Larson told the audience at a book discussion held recently at the Green Line Performing Arts Center, 329 E. Garfield Blvd. “I didn’t know what was going on; the eye-opening thing for me was howmuchwas going on.”
The event, moderated by Chicago theater legend Pemon Rami (founder of theLamont Zeno Theatre) had other south side theater pioneers in the audience including Masequa Myers (executive director, South Side Community Art Center), centered on Larson’s motivation for chronicling the city’s theater world. Having interviewed over 300 people for the book, Larson admittedly was both curious about and surprised by the breadth of Chicago theater. “When I first started, I had no idea the scope of it,” he said. “The opportunities here and the variety here are just extraordinary.”
The passionate discussion included historical tidbits about the early days of the black theater movement in Chicago including the Pekin Theatre (Chicago’s first black theater), the Kuumba Theater Company (founded by Val Gray Ward), and Langston Hughes having started his theater company, The Skyloft Players, on the south side. There was also praise and recognition for modern theater companies like Congo Square, Black Ensemble Theater, Definition Theatre Company and MPAACT.
The event addressed the “elephant in the room” which focuses on the city’s shortcomings when it comes to diversifying the Chicago theater collective, an issue Larson is acutely aware of, especially regarding funding for north side theaters versus south side theaters. “On the north side, there came a point where theaters like Victory Gardens, Goodman and others were getting money to diversity their shows and in hopes it would draw new audiences,” he said. “But who did the funding benefit?”
Rami closed out the event by acknowledging Larson’s book for highlighting not only Chicago’s overlooked black theater experience but also the city’s theater circle in general. “This book will give us an opportunity to begin to document and express what many of us who have been here have known for a long period of time and that is we have developed an incredible theater history and operation here which is unlike any place else in the world.”