“For the black community, what we first need to realize is that we’re still a chained people. You don’t go through 300 years of slavery, and then you’re alright. We need to stop trying to forget it. We need to understand where we are in the process of healing. Our scars and our wounds are very fresh… We have to realize that we are infected and start doing for ourselves what’s necessary to heal which means to love, and support, and protect one another and try to free ourselves of the bondage that we still put ourselves in.” – Jackie Taylor
Behind a desk littered with theater reviews, expense reports, and other items related to the successful operation of a business, Jackie Taylor, the founder of the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center works diligently for what any visitor can see is her life’s work. Taylor has successfully owned and operated the theater since 1976, becoming the first African American in modern Chicago to create a theater with such a grandiose mission. “I decided to start a theater that would reflect the greatness of who we are as African American people, and the purpose of the theater would be to eliminate racism,” Ms. Taylor explained.
After making her first motion picture, “Cooley High”, she didn’t like the opportunities afforded to African American actors. Because she’d graduated from Loyola University with a B.A. in theater, Taylor decided to create a space for Black actors that respected their craft, and equally as important – their race. Taylor explained why she decided to create the theater by saying, “this was during the time of Black Exploitation films…the scripts were horrible, they were just degrading. They were anti-African American, anti-woman, and anti-human as far as I was concerned.”
Taylor attributes the inspiration to create a theater to predecessors such as legendary Black theater companies like The Negro Ensemble in New York. She was also inspired by Chicago’s rich Black Shakespearean theater outlets of the 19th century.
Jackie Taylor was born in Chicago, and raised in the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. She never forgot her roots, and works hard to furnish other children from similar circumstances with an opportunity to find their way out of Chicago’s less fortunate communities. Her various programs serve over 8000 Chicago children per year. She has also taught in Chicago Public Schools, and is currently the President of the African American Arts Alliance, which began in Chicago in 1997. She maintains the theater alongside all of her other endeavors making her a true powerhouse in the industry of entertainment and education.
Programs such as Plays with a Purpose, teach self-respect and self-confidence. They also work to help youth hone their skills in focusing, listening, and memory. Taylor makes it a point to work with disenfranchised youth, wards of the state, and at-risk youth, “so that we can turn those children around,” said Taylor, “I don’t believe in labels, especially our children, we have really been pushed into labels. Sometimes when you’re pushed into a label – you begin to believe it yourself… Our programs for children destroy those labels and help them to understand what their real purpose in life is.”
Applying to join the troupe is relatively simple. There are open auditions for artists at any time, for any show. Technicians apply for positions, like they would in most instances. Playwrights must meet specific criteria, and if they’re accepted, they become a part of the Black Playwrights Initiative. There are also volunteer opportunities for youth and college students to hone their skills in any area of professional performing arts.
Jackie Taylor’s first production in 1976, took place in a theater at 1429 N. Wells Street in Old Town. The production was of one of her first plays, “The Other Cinderella”. Since that time, Taylor’s theater has grown exponentially – and so has her credibility. In order to make the move to her current location at 4450 N. Clark Street in Andersonville possible, Taylor received numerous donations. Taylor thanks the many contributors in the playbill whom she’s coined as “Capital Campaign Donors,” entities who have donated as much as $250, 000. Such groups include the city of Chicago, the Pritzker Foundation, the State of Illinois, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In March of 2009, Governor Pat Quinn declared March 27 Jackie Taylor Day.
Five to ten years from now, Taylor has a simple, yet prolific dream, “I hope to be five years older, and ten years wiser.” Even further into the future she dreamed, “it won’t happen in my lifetime, but the board of directors will be sitting in this building, in the room we call Jackie’s Suite, and say, ‘you know–Ms. Taylor built this company with the mission of eradicating racism. But we’re living in a society where that has no meaning. There is no racism, so – what is our purpose, why are we doing this and how do we make ourselves relevant for today?'”
Published: Saturday, February 25, 2012
Updated: Saturday, March 3, 2012 18:03