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Black Ensemble Theater finds new groove with new space
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times

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I felt slightly ashamed interviewing Black Ensemble Theater founder and executive director Jackie Taylor in the morning of Nov. 18—the very day that the new Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, located at 4450 N. Clark, was set to open that evening with a starry guest list including such showbiz and political luminaries like Dionne Warwick and Gov. Pat Quinn.

During the telephone interview, Taylor revealed she was up until 3 a.m. that morning working out last-minute details for the center's inaugural production: a revival of her musical The Jackie Wilson Story, Black Ensemble's most famous and acclaimed hit. (Look for a review from Mary Shen Barnidge in the Nov. 30 issue of Windy City Times.) At another point in the interview, three different phones started ringing simultaneously around her.

However, despite the stress and pressure, Taylor took time out of that special day to talk up the glories and potential of the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center.

"It's part of a vision and it's a dream come true," Taylor said, adding that Black Ensemble only had about a week to move into and rehearse in its new space. "We're capable of doing so many more things now and we're so happy."

Black Ensemble's new cultural center includes a state-of-the-art 299-seat main stage (double the size of Black Ensemble's previous space in the basement of Hull House in Uptown), spacious administrative offices and a small parking garage. There is also to be a 150-seat studio theater to showcase new works created through the company's Black Play Initiative. However, that space still needs to be finished.

Yet what's on display is certainly impressive, as evidenced during an open house of the complex the following day. The tour guides boasted that there wasn't a bad seat in the main theater's cozy auditorium, what with the tiered seating around a curved thrust stage (still littered with confetti from the previous night). No doubt the performers will prize the extra dressing rooms available to them backstage, while audiences will greatly appreciate the expanded lobbies and restrooms.

If there's one quibble I have, it's the large and blunt gray concrete wall on the theater's exterior facing Sunnyside Avenue. Hopefully, one day it will become a canvas for a massive mural celebrating African-American artists and musicians.

Despite Black Ensemble's expanded quarters, Taylor still plans to stick to the company's scheduling of shows that eschews a set subscription season in favor of extending hits when they happen. So even though several shows are slated for 2012, many might get delayed if one musical becomes a breakout hit.

When asked if the forthcoming studio theater would be rented out to other theater companies, Taylor said she would rather use it for Black Ensemble productions.

"We want to sustain and maintain our own identity," Taylor said, revealing that she hopes to open the studio space with a musical about the life of the late and influential rapper Tupac Shakur. "That theater is to develop youthful audiences, different audiences, experimental audiences and it will be an experimental stage for us so that we'll keep our product of our great musical theater but we'll also be able to experiment with different kinds of theater."

However, no matter what shows Black Ensemble produces, be they jukebox musicals around great African-American artists or family dramas, Taylor insists that there will be a musical component because it ties into the company's mission statement.

"Our mission is to eradicate racism and music translates into so many different cultures," Taylor said about the universality of music to break down barriers among different groups of people. "We want to sustain that aspect of our productions."

Jackie Taylor's The Jackie Wilson Story continues now through Jan. 8 at the new Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $55-$65 (group, students and senior discounts available). Call 773-769-4451 or visit .

Memphis on DiPietro's mind

Much like the mission of Black Ensemble Theater, the Tony Award-winning musical Memphis aims to show how music can help break down prejudice. Memphis is based upon a white DJ who broke social norms in the segregated South of the 1950s by playing African-American artists on a mainstream radio stations.

"I heard the story and thought, wow, I've never thought about that aspect of how music integrated society and how DJs of course had to be the people playing this music," said gay playwright and Memphis co-creator Joe DiPietro during a telephone interview. "I thought what a great American story that I wasn't aware of and I figured many other people wouldn't either."

Although DiPietro had worked with other theater composers before (notable on off-Broadway hits like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change and The Toxic Avenger), he wanted Memphis to have more of a rock and roll score. DiPietro luckily found an equally enthusiastic collaborator in Bon Jovi co-founder David Bryan, who wrote his first Broadway score with Memphis. Both DiPietro and Bryan won two Tony Awards apiece for their contributions to the show's script, score and orchestrations, while Memphis also won the award of best musical for the 2009-10 season.

Memphis is still playing on Broadway and now comes to Chicago as part of a national tour that began last month in (where else?) Memphis, Tenn.

"Chicago's been very good to me as a writer," DiPietro said, noting how he's had successful local productions ranging from his family-friendly comedy Over the River and Through the Woods at the Mercury Theatre to the gay adult comic-drama Fucking Men (a hit for the reconstituted Bailiwick Chicago). "I have a great affinity for Chicago since it's a great theater town."

Memphis continues through Dec. 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. The performance schedule varies, but is mostly 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays (no show Nov. 24); it's also at 2 p.m. Nov. 25 and 30. Tickets are $32-$100; call 800-775-2000 or visit .

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