Black Ensemble Theater: Chicago's 'grande dame' of theater celebrates 6 decades of service

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Friday, April 7, 2023
Chicago's 'grande dame' of theater celebrates 6 decades of service
Jackie Taylor founded the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976 with a goal of creating original musicals based on the lives of Black performers.

CHICAGO -- When Jackie Taylor founded the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976, she did so for incredibly ambitious reasons.

Taylor had been acting professionally for about six years at that time. But despite choice roles on stage with well-known local companies like the Goodman and Organic theaters, and even though she had a decent role in the now classic Chicago movie "Cooley High" (1975), she was disturbed by the stereotypical roles that Black actors were being offered.

"In starting the Black Ensemble, my vision was to create a theatre that would destroy racism," Taylor said.

Forty seven years later, Taylor still remembers the skeptics who said that her grand ideas for a local theater were too ambitious.

"Folks said it wouldn't last, that you can't do that, 'cause that's impossible," Taylor said. "But when the Wright Brothers said that they could fly something in the air like a bird, everyone laughed at them, too. But, you know, we're only limited in our imagination."

Taylor certainly has had no limits in her role with the theater that she founded back during the country's bicentennial year. Since its launch in 1976, Taylor has written and directed more than 100 productions for the company, many of which were original musicals based on the life and times of great Black performers in the 20th century.

And she's also mentored other writer/directors, who've gone on to produce Black Ensemble Theater shows like the current BET production, "Reasons: A Tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire," a musical biography of the '70s R&B super group, which was written and directed by Darryl D. Brooks.

Most importantly, Taylor has created her own space for her theater - an intimate, 300-seat venue called the Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center - which cost $20 million to build and opened in 2011.

Now Taylor's expanding her footprint again. She's invested $20 million - including a $5 million grant from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire ex-wife of Jeff Bezos - to purchase land adjacent to her theater at 4450 N. Clark St. in the Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. She's planning to build an apartment building with spaces for artists' residences, along with a Black Ensemble Theater-themed restaurant as part of the expansion.

These accomplishments have cemented Taylor as the "grande dame" of Chicago theater - one of the city's most influential theatrical impresarios.

"In Jackie Taylor, you have one of the Chicago theatre's true originals," said Chris Jones, the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. "She's an entrepreneur, a writer, a director, a performer and an arts administrator all rolled up into one package."

Taylor is a lifelong Chicagoan. She was born in the Cabrini-Green housing project, where notable musicians like Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler became notable national figures a generation before Taylor arrived on the scene.

By the early 1970s, Taylor was an active participant in Chicago's growing theater scene, working with legendary companies like the Goodman, the Organic and the St. Nicholas theaters, along with some notable directors like the Organic's Stuart Gordon, who encouraged Taylor -and offered her space in his own Uptown theater when she first launched Black Ensemble Theater.

Taylor became a well-respected actress early on in her career, and branched out into films by the mid-1970s. In addition to "Cooley High," she also appeared in other films like "Hoodlum," "The Father Clements Story," "Barbershop 2" and "To Sir With Love: Part 2."

But maintaining a presence in Chicago theater was always her main goal. And creating original musicals based on the lives of great Black performers was also an initial plan upon launching the theater 47 years ago.

And from the beginning, the BET shows have worked with a tried-and-true template and structure.

"I've been going to Jackie's shows for at least 25 years, and I've never failed to have a good time there," Jones said. "She's created a niche that no one else really has, which is creating shows about great Black musical figures. They're kind of jukebox shows for the most part. They celebrate the figure being honored. They're typically affirming shows. You get to see the struggles the musical artist has had, and then you get to see them resolved, often they have personal struggles and professional struggles. By the end, the show usually end with a real celebration of that music."

"What we want at Black Ensemble Theater is for people to see themselves in us, no matter your race, creed or color," Taylor said. Our stories are uplifting - they're musicals because I'm a musician."

Musical biographies produced by Black Ensemble Theater over the years include "The Jackie Wilson Story," "The Marvin Gaye Story," "I Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass)," "Don't Make Me Over (The Story of Dionne Warwick)," "Don't Shed A Tear (The Billie Holiday Story)" and the current Earth, Wind and Fire show, which was recently extended at the theater through April 30.

Still, Taylor says she's only scratched the surface when it comes to creating shows based on the lives of Black performers. "There's just so many great performers and great stories out there," Taylor said. "For instance, we haven't done James Brown yet. And I'd still love to do a show about Smokey Robinson - his songs are beautiful."

Taylor's other great talent is as a mentor for writers and performers. Taylor launched the Black Playwrights Initiative in 2005, and she's used many of the alumni from this group to create shows for the theater. And performers like Broadway touring star Chester Gregory got their start with Black Ensemble. In Gregory's case, he played the title role in "The Jackie Wilson Story" and then used that platform to get a starring role in Broadway's "Hairspray."

She's also known for her hands-on approach with her audience. Taylor often shows up to performances at the theater, where she can be seen in the lobby after the show, shaking hands with patrons. And her post-show speeches to the audience, where she makes a spirited appeal for donations is also legendary among Chicago theater audiences, invoking the sounds of a Baptist church preacher while making that appeal.

"When you come to the Black Ensemble Theater, it's just like going to church," Taylor will say, while the band behind her plays gospel riffs. "'Cause we got a donation box right in the lobby."

Despite her long service to the theater, Taylor doesn't see herself moving on anytime soon. She really wants to see her expansion plans come to fruition first.

But one thing is for certain - Jackie Taylor is the Black Ensemble Theater. And the theater is Jackie Taylor.

"There's only one Jackie Taylor and she's a real treasure in this city," Chris Jones said. "It's so closely linked to its founder that it's impossible for me to imagine the Black Ensemble without her."