Black Ensemble Theatre Produces Three Play Series

Lenore Petinger, Writer

On Jan. 17 – 19, Black Ensemble Theater (BET) of Chicago performed its first anti-racism play in partnership with Northeastern.

“National Anthem” is the dilemma that a college senior faces on what his actions should be as he quarterbacks his team in the national championship game.  He knows the history of the civil rights leaders who have preceded him and he has heard the rhetoric of the #Takeaknee campaign. The play ends with the question, “What would you do?” A discussion was held after each performance with the actors, playwright Ervin Gardner, BET founder Jackie Taylor and play attendees regarding this issue.

A dialogue between Northeastern and BET was initiated by Dr. Tim Libretti, Acting Associate Dean for CAS, with Taylor after he saw the three one-act plays in the anti-racism series. BET’s mission is to “eradicate racism through the theater arts.”  

The plays were written under the auspices of the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI), one of BET’s community outreach programs. After talking with Taylor, Libretti contacted the staff in the Communications, Media and Theatre department at NEIU to determine what other aspects of the theater experience could be incorporated into a partnership. Shayne Pepper, Department Chair, Prof. Sarah Fabian, Managing Artistic Director at Stage Center Theatre, and Adam Goldstein, Assistant Professor of Directing and Performance, all vigorously supported the broader experience of a theater partnership and were instrumental in making this come to fruition. Andrea Evans, Director of the CCICS campus was very enthusiastic about bringing the BET performances on site. She could see the benefits of a synergy between NEIU and a community partner that would bring new experiences, ideas and perspectives to the campus.    

Taylor, Darryl Brooks, Production Managing Director at BET, Libretti, and the three CMT professors mentioned above visited all three NEIU campuses to determine what venues would be appropriate for staging the proposed plays. The Main Campus and CCICS both had adequate spaces so the scheduling proceeded with those venues. The staff in the CMT Department worked through the process of determining time, places and resources in order to make this possible.  

Besides the performance of the plays, the partnership includes BET holding two Master Classes for theater students for each play that is produced at NEIU. Goldstein explained that additionally students “will be involved on the production end, supporting the lighting and scenic designers from BET in prepping the space, hanging and focusing lights, and assisting with scenic load-in.” This gives the students the experience of applying what they learn in class to the actual staging of a theater experience.

This partnership took about six months to come into existence from the time that Libretti initiated the idea until it was formalized. During this time, Katrina Bell-Jordan, Acting Dean of CAS, and Acting Provost Wamucii Njogu were enthusiastic supporters as well as President Gloria J. Gibson who gave her immediate approval.  At the signing ceremony on Jan. 11, Jackie Taylor praised the university for their bravery in presenting this controversial issue of anti-racism.

A wide audience of both high school and college students was sought by providing free tickets to all three plays. During the course of the plays, students from Thornton Fractional, Simeon and the Illinois Math and Science Academy will be attending.   

Paul Lisnek, WTTW Political Analyst and reporter hosted a discussion of these plays on his podcast “Behind the Curtain” on Jan. 24. Libretti, Brooks, and Andrea Evans participated in that roundtable. They pointedly mentioned that all three plays deal with social injustice as it exists today, what is expected of our justice system, and how it fails young Black men and people of color. Evans noted that “In the Shadow of Justice,” a play dealing with injustice in the police department, will be staged at CCICS Feb. 7 – 9 during Black History month, which is a natural fit for both the play and the location. Evans expectations for an audience that is half adults and half students would propel discussions about this issue more often and more openly. “The Plea,” which deals with a young man’s plea in a courtroom, will be staged at the Main Campus March 14 -16.

Libretti summed up the podcast with this perspective on the partnership. “This is just the beginning of what we see as an ongoing partnership with BET. The university is committed to diversity and is an institution committed to social justice.”  The university makes an effort to engage with the community around it and “takes on key issues that are important to the world and the institution wants to be a resource to the world where these conversations take place.” Brooks also sees NEIU as a place to grow for BET as both organizations have missions of diversity and combating racism.