jakub | September 1, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Black Ensemble Theater: The Jackie Taylor Story

Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater. (Courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater)

The door to Jackie Taylor’s office is never closed. Even when she’s in a meeting, a staff member might lean across the threshold with a question or a quick note, or her teenage grandson might slink in to grab a few dollars for lunch—neither of them getting away without a proper hello and an introduction. 

In fact, there is an open-door policy for all of the staff at Black Ensemble Theater, and Taylor insists that “everyone should be greeted at least three times by the time they reach their desk.” Guests too are cheerfully greeted by staff and youth program students wandering the theatre’s halls, making this medium-sized theatre on the northside of Chicago feel more like a pleasant little village than a business. Even the productions offer a consistently cheerful tone. 

“It has to be cross-cultural, it has to be uplifting, it has to end hopeful, it has to have a connectivity to it,” said Taylor of her work.

Jackie Taylor in 1978. (Courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater)

Taylor founded the theatre in 1976 after she grew frustrated with the scarcity of positive roles for Black actors in theatre and film. So she set about creating the roles herself, as well as the stage to put them on. She has since grown her theatre from a ragtag operation in the basement of an Uptown community center to, by 2011, an airy, windowed building housing a 299-seat mainstage, a 150-seat black box studio, ample office space, and even a small parking garage. There are plans to expand even more: Taylor is currently working toward her vision of an artists corridor that will include affordable housing for artists, a film and technology center, and an arts education center along North Clark Street surrounding the theatre. It will be called the “Free to Be” village, she said.

Meanwhile, at the center, keeping all of the elements aligned for the past 47 years is Taylor, the theatre’s founder and CEO. If the Black Ensemble Theater is more village than company, then Taylor is its matriarch, a role she holds in the larger Black theatre community as well.

“Most people think of it as Jackie’s theatre,” said Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University and author of Black Theater Is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater and Dance, 1970-2010. “Among Black theatre artists in Chicago, she probably has the most authority, because she owns her own building, has a [creative] formula, has a reliable audience, and she didn’t make any deals. She just worked it.”

As Taylor walks through the Black Ensemble Theater building, she’s met with easy smiles and conversation from everyone. The set design team pauses briefly to wave a greeting as she passes by. When Taylor beckons, the youth programs manager leaps off the elevator just before the doors close. A young student in the theatre’s summer program practicing quietly on the keyboard onstage notices Taylor observing, and explains that she doesn’t have access to a piano at home. Taylor smiles proudly as the student puts a little extra power into her vocals.

Over the decades, Taylor has mentored many young theatremakers, and some have begun to emerge as leaders in their own right. As Taylor begins to shift more of her focus to development and fundraising, new leaders within the Ensemble are emerging as well, asserting a sense of ownership over the theatre. What that will mean for the Ensemble and for the Black theatre community in Chicago is anyone’s guess.

Still, the story of the Black Ensemble Theater is the story of Jackie Taylor. It is by the force of her tremendous will that the theatre has pushed past every obstacle a Black woman-led venture in theatre might face over the decades. No matter how it may change in the decades to come, one cannot tell the story of Black Ensemble Theater, nor Black theatre as whole in Chicago, without telling the story of Jackie Taylor.

Crowds gather on the Black Ensemble Theater lawn for the organization’s summer series, “Fridays on the Green.” (Courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater)

Behind the Curtain

It was 1960. Ten-year-old Jackie Taylor was throwing bricks with her friends at Seward Park near the Cabrini-Green housing projects where she lived when a man came out of the park’s field house. The kids laughed and ran away, but the man did something none of the other adults there had ever done—he chased after them. 

And he caught Taylor. 

Most of the other adults at the park were either afraid of the kids, Taylor said, or didn’t care enough to bother with them, but this man, John Houston, saw potential. He gave Taylor a choice—he could turn her in to the cops for property damage or she could commit to coming to his drama class on the third floor of the field house every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. Taylor chose the latter. 

The next day at school she asked her teacher what drama was—she had never heard the word before.

“He took me under his wing and he explained the world to me,” said Taylor. “He taught me how to love myself, and that made all the difference in the world.”

In that first drama class, Houston cast Taylor as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, though, said Taylor, “I wanted to be Dorothy so bad.” As it turned out, the young woman who played the part of Dorothy couldn’t sing very well, so Taylor ended up singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” behind a curtain while the actress playing Dorothy lip-synched.

“That was my first introduction,” said Taylor. “I loved it. I just loved it. I loved the spotlight. I loved the positive encouragement. And it changed my life.”

Taylor didn’t spend much time in bit roles or behind curtains.

“Black Ensemble Theater provides that outlet where you feel loved—you do feel part of a community, you do feel honored, and you do feel respected.”

Jackie Taylor

More than six decades later, Taylor and her theatre are thriving in Uptown, just a few miles north of where she literally learned the meaning of drama. For the past 47 years, Taylor has written, directed, and produced hundreds of shows, and paying forward Houston’s gift to her by mentoring thousands of young theatremakers—through summer programs at Black Ensemble and her Strengthening the School Through Theater Arts program, which brings theatre training to schools around the city. 

Today Black Ensemble Theater stages four productions per season, each show written and directed in-house according to a tried-and-true formula. The productions are almost always biographical musicals about Black artists, featuring a hefty portion of musical numbers. This year’s season, for example, so far featured Reasons: A Tribute to Earth, Wind, and Fire, which included a number of the group’s hits as it dives into its creation journey, and The Real Housewives of Motown, which explored the lives of the women married to the headliners of the Motown era. The season closes out over the holidays with Taylor’s reimagining of a classic in The Other Cinderella. This formula not only keeps the theatre full at nearly every show, but it also addresses the broader goal of the theatre, which as Taylor puts it, is “to eradicate racism.” This bold mission drives everything from the content on its stages to the design of the building.

By centering music, the productions bring a diverse group of people into the theatre and into conversation with each other, because, as Taylor said, “Music already crosses cultural barriers.” The large windows and open design of the building, as well as the performances that take over the lawn outside on Fridays in the summer, seem to shout a welcome to anyone who wanders by. The theatre’s next production is A Taste of Soul (Sept. 3-Oct. 15), a sort of cooking show that whips up soul music artists as ingredients. It’s written and directed by producing managing director Daryl D. Brooks.

The Black Ensemble Theater doesn’t pull in revenue or audiences as large as Chicago’s top theatres. It doesn’t stage aspiring Broadway blockbusters. It doesn’t receive the kind of critical praise and national renown that Chicago theatres like Steppenwolf or the Goodman do. So what is it about this big little theatre company on the northside that draws in the investors and has kept it going and growing these past 47 years?

Again: Jackie Taylor. 

“She’s one of the most impressive theatremakers I’ve ever met,” said Young. “She’s just a force of will.”

Although her mission “to eradicate racism” may sound like an overly ambitious dream, Taylor didn’t start a company as a Black woman in a racist city and industry, and build it into one of the largest theatre campuses in the city, on good will and a dream. She is a shrewd businesswoman with a knack for selling her product. But that doesn’t just mean a ticket to a show, she explained.

“Black Ensemble Theater provides that outlet where you feel loved—you do feel part of a community, you do feel honored, and you do feel respected,” said Taylor. “That’s the product. And it’s a product that will never get old. It’s a product that will live on.” 

The cast of Black Ensemble Theater’s “Taste of Soul” in rehearsal ahead of a Sept. 3, 2023, opening. (Photo by Darin M. Gladfelter)

The BE machine

To create that loving feeling, the Black Ensemble Theater creative team goes on a retreat every year, where they spend a week batting around ideas and planning out the next two seasons for the theatre. Once they’ve landed on the ideas they’d like to pursue, they return home and feed those ideas into the theatre’s own playwriting factory of sorts, the Black Playwrights Initiative. 

Created by Taylor in 2005 along with the Black Playwrights Festival, BPI is a forum for aspiring and working Black Chicago playwrights to develop their skills through readings, classes, and exposure at local and national festivals. It also serves to write scripts for the Black Ensemble Theater. 

The creative team delivers the ideas and BPI gets to work making them into scripts that fit the Black Ensemble formula: biographical musicals that are uplifting, end on a hopeful note, and connect people across cultures. This formula hasn’t failed Black Ensemble Theater yet, and there’s no one else in Chicago doing what they do.

“Black Ensemble is so rogue,” said writer-director Brooks. “We really do dance to our own drum.”

According to Taylor, most shows are sold out. The organization’s revenue hovers around approximately $3 million each year, a combination of grants, contributions, and ticket sales—though the theatre lost roughly 50 percent of that revenue during the pandemic shutdown and its earned income taking a nearly 90 percent hit. The theatre received a $5 million dollar grant from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott in 2021, which, Taylor says, was used to help the theatre survive during the pandemic, pay down debt, and get through “the continued impact of COVID.”

“Don’t Make Me Over (In Tribute To Dionne Warwick)” at Black Ensemble Theater in 2016. (Photo by Michael Courier)

The theatre’s supporters are steady, many of them regulars at the theatre and personal friends of Taylor’s. Uptown artist and Black Ensemble supporter Ginny Sykes first met Taylor 35 years ago when she was working out of the Beacon Street Hull House in Uptown. Sykes was teaching visual arts programming and Taylor had her theatre in the basement. It’s the arts education aspect of the Black Ensemble Theater that keeps Sykes coming back and opening her purse, she explained.

“I’ve worked with a lot of at-risk youth, a lot of youth in the community,” Sykes said. “I kind of came up in a similar way as Jackie. So I really believe that, and I’ve seen it firsthand, how the arts help…They can use the arts to tell their stories.” She added that the theatre “is right in the heart of our community and I want to see it stay and thrive and succeed and grow.”

Taylor plans to make sure of that. Her plans for the “Free to Be” village are partly an effort to ensure the her company’s legacy.

“The theatre has to survive without me—not that I’m going anywhere,” said Taylor. “But it has to be able to sustain itself. It needs new revenue streams, and real estate is a strong revenue stream. It’s a strong asset so that the theatre is not dependent on the wind changing—so that it has a foundation of earned revenue that will feed the work, and the work can continue no matter who is operating the engine.”

Taylor does not admit to having anyone particular in mind to “operate the engine” after her, but largely due to her own efforts in cultivating talent and mentoring theatremakers throughout the city, there is no shortage of possible successors. 

New leaders emerging 

Enter Daryl D. Brooks. A sort of jack-of-all-theatre-trades, he’s been with the Black Ensemble Theater since 2000. 

Indeed, many staffers at Black Ensemble can claim more than a decade or two as employees. One staffer, Elicia Golden-Best, or “LiLi,” as she’s affectionately known, started off as an audience member watching her husband play in the live band. She has now been on staff for eight years, and her son is in his second year of the youth summer program. The grants manager Colleen Perry started off as an actress at BE, playing Janis Joplin and Adele in the 2019 production Women of Soul. On Fridays in the summer, she still sings during the free performances on the theatre’s green. The box office staff boasts a collective 30 years at BE among them.

Brooks, however, has moved around more than others. He started as a volunteer. He ushered, acted, stage managed, and directed his way through the ranks at the theatre. Now, as producing managing director, he is Taylor’s right hand man. In addition to directing all of the plays at the annual Black Playwrights Festival, writing one to two shows each year, directing one to two shows each year, planning each season, and assistant-producing all shows, he also meets with Taylor every morning to discuss every aspect of the theatre, its goings-on and its people.

Still, Brooks said, one of his most important duties is making sure Taylor doesn’t have to know every little thing. Once upon a time, he recalled, she insisted on knowing every bit of minutiae, down to whether an actor was having a bad day. But as Brooks has taken on more responsibility, he has been able to take over those kinds of concerns to allow her to focus on the bigger picture. It wasn’t easy for her to let go, though.

Daryl D. Brooks and Jackie Taylor. (Courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater)

“This is her company and she has run it for almost 50 years with much adversity,” Brooks said. “Being not only a woman but being a Black woman, you can imagine the roadblocks that she’s run into. So, it took some…releasing,” he said with a sympathetic grin. “I always put her on a pedestal. She is the executive director of the Black Ensemble, so by the time a problem gets to her, it needs to be a problem that the rest of the staff can’t solve. I think that garners some trust.”

While Brooks hopes to take on more responsibilities over time, he recognizes that it will always be Jackie’s theatre. His vision for Black Ensemble’s future is for it to simply become more of what it already is.

“Even more thought-provoking productions, even more robust programs, even more community events. And even more community involvement,” said Brooks. “She puts this stuff in place, and then I make it, you know, I make it grow. That’s my job. I like my job.”

Elsewhere in the theatre community, Taylor has ushered in new leadership as well. This January, Charlique C. Rolle, executive director of Congo Square Theatre, took over as president of the African American Arts Alliance, an organization that Taylor ran for the past 25 years. Rolle praised Taylor as one of the figures who laid the foundations for the work she is able to do both at Congo Square Theatre, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and with the Arts Alliance. She feels it is her duty to build on those foundations by using the opportunities and skills her predecessors might not have had access to as Black women in previous decades.

“I have a lot more access and information that I can utilize to help bring that vision to life in a way that it couldn’t have back in the ’70s, or back in the ’50s, when it was very real for Black people to not have access or capabilities to do these things,” said Rolle. It is her goal, she said, “to support the dream of what was and also to birth new dreams of what could be.”

As new dreams build and unfold under the next generation of leadership, Jackie Taylor continues to birth new dreams of her own. The “Free to Be” village is scheduled to break ground in 2024. She said she hopes the village will “feed the work” of the Black Ensemble Theater and its mission. Returning lightly to theme of succession, she concluded, “And the work can continue no matter who is operating the engine. We all have our positions and our parts, and within those positions, there are understudies. Everybody has an understudy.”

Crystal L. Paul (she/her) is a Chicago-based journalist and editor, specializing in community journalism and reporting on race & culture and the arts. @cplhousecrystal.l.paul@gmail.com.

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