By Marla Seidell
It’s 6:30 in the morning, and Jackie Taylor is a bundle of high energy and vibrancy. She greets me with a friendly, “Hi sweetheart!” at the newly built Black Ensemble Theater, a 59,000-square-foot state-of-the-art theater and cultural center. The executive director and founder of the Black Ensemble, Chicago treasure, actress, playwright, producer and educator is dressed simply in a black-and-white print tunic and plain black pants. The plan is to head over to the WGN-TV Studios to watch a live taping of a performance segment from Taylor’s latest project, “The Marvin Gaye Story: Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend.” We hit the road in Taylor’s 1998 jade green Pontiac Grand Am and stop to pick up a healthy supply of Dunkin’ Donuts for the cast before hitting heavy traffic on Addison Street.
Taylor founded the Black Ensemble Theater in 1976 with a $5,000 loan, moving into a dingy building at 1429 North Wells. In 1984, the Black Ensemble moved into Uptown’s Jane Addams Hull House on Beacon Street (also called Jackie Taylor Street). In 2011 Black Ensemble opened its doors at the new facility just a few blocks west, at 4450 North Clark Street. The building cost twenty-million dollars to create, and now operates on an annual budget of $3.4 million. The money was raised from a combination of state and city support, corporate and foundation money. The main stage theater seats 299, and there is also a dance studio, rehearsal hall, scene shop, costume shop and wardrobe shop, rehearsal room for musicians, seven dressing rooms and an indoor parking garage. Taylor heads a staff of thirty-eight (thirteen are full-time) in addition to writing, directing and producing several productions a year and running eight outreach programs.
Taylor won the 1996 Joseph Jefferson Award for Director of a Revue for “Great Women in Gospel” at the Black Ensemble Theater and has acted alongside Laurence Fishburne and Sidney Poitier. Despite her celebrity status and staggering list of accomplishments, Taylor is a no-frills type of gal. She laughs when recalling the story of buying her present vehicle, seven years ago. “For my daughter’s thirtieth birthday I bought her a car, and I thought, you know I think I’ll get one.” Taylor bought her daughter a new car, and the used Pontiac for herself. “The guy [at the dealership] said, ‘Listen, Mother, it’s supposed to be the other way around. She [your daughter] gets the used car, and you get the new one,’” Taylor says with a chuckle.
Like everything she does in her life, Taylor does it in her own style—the opposite of what people would expect her to do. At the age of twenty-three, in 1975, following the completion of her first film, “Cooley High,” Taylor had a contract with American International Pictures, and the possibility of a long-term film career. She flew out to Hollywood and started reading the scripts AIP had in mind for her. After digesting a misogynistic tone and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about African Americans, Taylor flew back home to Chicago and made a life-changing decision. “I was either going to be a passive stand-by and complain, or I was going to do something about it,” she recalls. “I decided I would start my own theater company, with the mission of eradicating racism and telling the truth about who we are.”
For Taylor, theater has always been a way to excel and flee from the scourges of racism toward a brighter future. Born in 1951, the youngest girl in a family of six, Taylor grew up in the Cabrini-Green public housing development. “My childhood wasn’t any different from any other childhood in Cabrini,” she explains. It was difficult, she says, due to the great number of children living in the project, and the challenge of learning to stay away from the violence. Taylor found refuge in Chicago Catholic schools, like St. Joseph’s, where her playwriting skills were nurtured, and in Seward Park District, where she started taking voice, acting and dance lessons at the age of nine.
“We never thought of ourselves as poor, we had a lot of pride and dreams,” Taylor says, explaining that it’s not about where you live, it’s how you live. Nevertheless, the goal of leaving the projects was imminent. “I never had any intentions of staying in Cabrini forever,” she says. “It was just a natural progression to move forward.”
When she graduated from Loyola University with a degree in theater in 1973, Taylor was already on the road performing with Chicago’s Free Street Theater. A master’s degree in theater from Roosevelt University followed. To date, Taylor has written about a hundred plays, including “The Marvin Gaye Story,” which she wrote about a month prior to production.
When I ask her what is her most important role—acting, or writing, or producing, teaching or running a theater, Taylor doesn’t mince words. “Whatever I am doing at the time,” she says without hesitating. “Right now my favorite role is sitting here talking to you,” she adds with a smile.
She wears a dizzying number of hats. Usually at the office by 8am, Taylor spends her mornings at her desk, “asking people for money.” In the afternoon, she’s in interviews and various appointments, followed by pepping up the cast for the evening show with “Circle,” a group prayer. She then watches the show and makes an appearance onstage afterward, followed by post-show notes for the cast. Her days are long and all-consuming.
But above all, there is a common theme that unites all of Taylor’s triumphant projects: education. “The most important thing in my life is to be fair and be treated fairly,” she says. I ask her about the negative portrayals of African Americans she experienced in the film industry in the early seventies, and she talks about how unfairness really hasn’t gone away. “We still don’t have equal rights, women are second-class citizens in this country,” she says. “We’re still fighting for equal pay and we’re at a time in history where they are trying to write laws that put us back fifty years in controlling what we can and cannot do. And underneath the injustice is racism. Even though we have been able to elect an African-American president, look at what he is going through,” she says. “America wants to put on a mask and pretend it’s not racist and sexist,” she adds. “But that’s pure bullshit.”
I ask her how she tries to eradicate racism through theater. “To report the history of African-American people in a way that reflects the greatness of who we are as people, and our cultural contributions to this country.” Hence “The Marvin Gaye Story.” Marvin Gaye was a musical genius that was way before his time, she says. Gaye wrote social commentary music in the seventies, yet today, more than forty years later, his music is still relevant and speaks to current issues. “He described birds falling from the sky and fish dying in the ocean, and when we heard it, we couldn’t believe it, but now it’s happening all over the world.”
Gaye crossed cultural barriers, which is important to the Black Ensemble because when you look into the audience you see a diverse demographic, Taylor explains. Gaye was able to speak through cultural boundaries. “By shaping our productions and outreach programs, we are educating,” she says.
The founder of the Black Ensemble Theater has a simple plan of attack. “The more you know, the more you understand, and the better you can fight against bigotry,” she says. “By erecting a building called the Black Ensemble Theater, but when you walk in it, it reflects all races and types, gives a new spin on what black actually is,” says Taylor.
“The Marvin Gaye Story” has helped Taylor define who the Black Ensemble Theater is. “By telling his story we tell our story,” she says. “It’s a human story,” says Rashawn Thompson, the twenty-three-year-old singer and actor and star of “The Marvin Gaye Story.”
When Taylor sees Thompson at the WGN-TV studio they embrace and kiss cheeks. “My baby!” says Taylor happily. “My mom,” says Rashawn proudly. Then Taylor gets down to business, but in her “Mama Jackie” way. “Did y’all have a warm-up?” she asks. It’s 7:30 in the morning and Thompson has been up since four, followed by a voice lesson at 5:30. By nine, he’s singing, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with other members of the cast in the WGN studio.
Thompson is a senior member of Black Ensemble and has been with the theater for twelve years. As a child he participated in the New Directions Outreach program from the age of eleven. He credits the program with getting him off the streets and onto the stage. “I was hard-headed and crazy by the age of fifteen,” Thompson recalls. Raised in Englewood, Thompson started singing and performing at the age of six, with his father acting as his performance manager. In similar fashion to Gaye, who Thompson portrays in the show, Thompson’s own father was very strict and used violence to enforce discipline. “He beat me for singing a note wrong,” recalls Thompson. As a teenager Thompson was full of rage and anger for his father, causing him to rebel. “I was very disrespectful to women, calling them names, and involved in violence,” Thompson admits.
Yet Black Ensemble offered a way out. Thompson fell in love with theater from the first day he walked into Taylor’s classroom on Beacon Street, and it helped steer him away from anger and rebellion to become a rising young performer. Five years ago he became one of Taylor’s teaching artists in New Directions, and continues to teach students, many of them from foster homes, every Saturday. “We teach them about life through acting,” says Thompson.
Thompson doesn’t view “The Marvin Gaye Story,” in terms of Gaye being a black man. “He dealt with a lot of different people in his life, but he is not the only person that could go through that,” Thompson says. And in terms of the mission of the Black Ensemble Theater, Thompson points out how theater brings people together from all races. “I can’t think of a better way to eradicate racism,” he says.
Taylor fights racism by perpetuating positive images of African Americans, and by educating. “You have to be ignorant to the realities of the world to be a racist,” she notes. “By shaping our productions and outreach programs, we are educating,” she adds.
Following the WGN taping, Taylor and I head back to the theater. She has appointments, and suggests I watch a production of “Plays with a Purpose,” part of her Strengthening Schools Through Theater Arts program. Sitting among a throng of children watching actors entertain and teach at the same time, I experience Taylor’s unique approach to education. “The goal is to make teaching a three-dimensional process, where the kids have fun, and they don’t realize they are learning when it’s over,” Taylor says. “It’s a skill every teacher needs to know.”
The actors sing and dance about topics like the challenge of homework and how learning to focus will help students succeed. Throughout the show, the kids clap and laugh, not bored for a second. Afterward, a few students volunteer to go onstage and talk about what they have learned. “I learned that school is hard for teachers, too,” says one young girl. The children applaud and cheer wildly. Each play has a lesson, and skills manuals are presented to the teacher at the end of each show. Taylor’s program serves approximately 10,000 students in the Chicago area.
“When you are a teacher you teach all the time, period,” states Taylor. Aside from running her growing theater empire, Taylor worked in the Chicago school system for thirty-five years. She started out as a substitute teacher, and later created the New Directions program, which serves wards of the state, helping them transition to adulthood and independence. She is currently working toward her master’s in education, and plans to earn her doctorate down the line. Her goal is to impact the Chicago Public School system in a big way. “Kids are growing up in the technological age, and we as teachers are not equipped to teach them how to focus,” she says. “Teachers need their teaching skills developed.”
After almost forty years in theater, Taylor is just getting started. “There is still so much I want to do,” she explains. There are plans for a second theater, a soul food literary café across the street from the Black Ensemble, and a performing arts school. Uptown differs from other neighborhoods in Chicago (and throughout the States) in that it does not have invisible segregation. And apparently, it’s becoming a model for Taylor’s vision of a new America. “The reason why we are here is because there is rebirth, lots of culture, various economic tiers in this neighborhood,” Taylor points out.
Times have changed, but change is not enough. “Racism needs to be eliminated,” says Taylor. She says that if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would come back and go through the same neighborhoods he went through when he was alive, he would see that they are the same. “That’s a sad statement, don’t you think?” Taylor asks.
“We have to change law, people’s ideals and philosophies,” says Taylor. And the most important thing for her is that her work continues. At sixty years old, Taylor considers herself “very young.” “I’m not planning on going anywhere for another forty to fifty years,” she says. “I don’t want the bread thrown out after my expiration date is over,” Taylor explains. “I want it to continue.”