ETA Creative Arts: Culture as a Liberating Force
L, Barbara, Black Masks
Eta Creative Arts: Culture as a Liberating Force
About twenty years ago, I wrote an article about the state of Black theatre in Chicago. Then, as now, nearly all of Chicago's African-American theatres were tenants. As usual, eta's Creative Arts Foundation's co-founder, president and producer, the clear-sighted Abena Joan Brown, had the final word. She said, "We won't know what we can do until we build a house." This was exactly what the young organization was about to do, literally and figuratively. They had purchased an old window factory on a commercial strip on the southeast side of Chicago, and were breaking ground to construct a facility in the Grand Crossing/South Shore community. Naysayers questioned the feasibility and the sanity of such an undertaking. Undeterred, construction began and eta's nomadic days were over.
Presently, in its twenty-ninth year, the organization, founded in 1971, has seen significant and, in some ways, astounding growth. The neat rows of wooden chairs, set up in what is currently the Gallery, used to function as the theater space. Now they have been replaced by a warm, intimate and very comfortable two hundred seat theater. The immaculately maintained sixteen thousand square foot cultural center now houses office space, classrooms, a dance studio, library/conference room, a gift space and a gallery/community room where exhibitions, receptions, book signings, readings, meetings and, you name it, are held. The space, which is the only African-American owned and managed performing and cultural arts facility of its kind in the city of Chicago, and among the few in the nation, is a virtual hotbed of activity around the clock.
In addition to a forty-four to forty-six week, six-play season of Mainstage productions, ninety-eight percent of which are world premieres, eta also stages thirty-two weeks of Showfolk (daytime performances for school children), the Saturday Family Matinee and the Readers Theatre. In addition, six exhibitions are mounted in the Gallery annually, featuring works by emerging and established African-American artists.
This organization produces a lot of theater, most of which sells at eighty-five per cent theater capacity, a phenomenon in and of itself. Yet, even though eta has received dozens of awards for its theatrical productions, (including, most recently, six Audelco Awards for their co-production of Karani Marcia Leslie's The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman Vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae with New York's New Federal Theatre), what distinguishes eta from most theaters in the nation is its mission. "We are referred to as a theater," says Abena Joan Brown, "but in our definition of theater, it's more holistic. And it stems from our mission, which is the preservation, perpetuation and promulgation of the African American aesthetic -- telling our story in the first voice." She adds, "[W]e asked ourselves three to four years ago in the board/staff retreat, `What business are we in?' That [question] broadened and gave even more flesh to the mission statement. We said, `We're in the social, economic, human and cultural development business, using the arts as a medium within an Africentric context for the liberation of our people.' This is a conscious intervention strategy."
It's a strategy that's working in large part because of the visionary Abena Joan Brown, and a dedicated thirty-member volunteer Board of Directors, a "lean and mean" staff of six, ten contracted instructors and an evangelical cadre of over five hundred volunteers. In 1999 alone, over 100,000 people participated in activities at eta, including a comprehensive arts-in-education program in three public schools, and a training program in the performing and technical arts -- initiatives that may hearken back to Brown's youth when she studied dance beginning at age three. "Training is very important," she believes. "Starting at an early age is very important. That's why we start at six, knowing that if our creative impulses are nurtured from an early age, then we do begin to see the possibilities in our own life choices. …