The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago's First Black-Owned Theater

By Duis, Perry R. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago's First Black-Owned Theater


Duis, Perry R., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago's First Black-Owned Theater. By Thom - as Bauman. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. xxii, 232, notes, index. Cloth, $55.00.)

Robert T. Motts was an enigmatic figure during the first three decades of Chicago's African American history. Often dismissed in most books with a description as a minor character, Motts was regarded by historians as a go-between, an inter-face between the respectable people of the emerging Black Belt and the activities of shady vice figures who inhabited the remnants of the old Levee district nearby. Somewhere in that description is usually a note that he owned and operated the Pekin Theater and with it a faded photograph whose caption notes that the building was later used as a Chicago Police Department precinct station. More detailed descriptions mention in passing that the Pekin proclaimed itself a center of African American culture, and books on the history of black theater make mention of a larger significance without providing much detail.

This new book, however, definitively establishes the significance of the Pekin as both a productive center of creativity and a mirror to the rest of the community. After a detailed description of the community around 2700 State Street, the book follows the theater's opening in 1904 with a lengthy description of Motts' efforts during the next two years to launch a national theatrical company that ended in financial disaster. Along the way the Pekin (the origin of the name remains a matter of speculation) hosted a school for dramatics and fostered aspiring actors and musicians. Struggling to survive, it reverted to more popular fare but tried to remain respectable. Shaky financing remained a constant theme. The sad story of the decline after Motts' death in 1911 occupies the rest of the book. The building became a police station in 1924 and was razed in 1946. …

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