In nineteenth-century New Orleans, Congo Square was a place where enslaved and free Africans could gather on Sundays to dance, sing, play music and trade goods. The spot, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, is arguably the birthplace of jazz.
It also provided the name for one of Chicago’s premier theater companies, coming up on its twenty-fifth season.
A twenty-five-year anniversary is tough to achieve in a marriage, and maybe a bigger challenge in the world of art. Congo Square has survived funding problems, the lure of cable television, the death of artistic director Samuel Roberson at age thirty-four in 2017, and a pandemic, which shut down live theater all over the world. But Congo Square not only continues to produce new work, but is planning its first permanent home in Bronzeville.
Artistic director and ensemble member Ericka Ratcliff says that the pandemic made an already strong company even more committed and clear about its mission.
“The pandemic was this terrible fucking thing that happened to all of us, but I think there was a silver lining for us as an organization, because it made us really have to sit down and get our shit together,” says Ratcliff. “I feel like we’ve really hit our stride. We’re doing things we really care about. It’s not just keeping up with the Joneses. We’re doing what’s best for our people and our community.”
Congo Square was founded in 1999 by Reginald Nelson and Derrick Sanders. Sanders says he was inspired by a book by the late African American playwright August Wilson, “The Ground on Which I Stand.” Wilson wrote that what was needed for diversity is not color-blind casting, but more Black theaters.
Sanders and Nelson looked at a few markets, including New York City, Atlanta and D.C. “At the time, Chicago was the only one that had five Black theaters that supported year-round productions, so as a business model we instinctively knew that the audience was there in Chicago.”
Nelson and Sanders’ vision was a theater that would concentrate on classics but also new plays of the African diaspora, modeled on New York’s legendary Negro Ensemble Company. Most of the initial twelve-member ensemble had advanced degrees in theater and were classically trained, with experience performing Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov, says Sanders, now associate director of drama at the Juilliard School.
Sanders was a graduate student when he met August Wilson and told him that he wanted to start a theater company. Wilson agreed to help. The company has performed Wilson’s “King Hedley,” “Jitney,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson,” along with works by Langston Hughes, Charles Fuller and Ntozake Shange. Congo’s 2005 production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” won Joseph Jefferson Awards for best ensemble, direction and production—the first African American theater company to earn such an honor.
In 2005, Congo Square started The New Playwright Initiative, renamed the August Wilson New Play Initiative after the writer’s death. New plays generated by the initiative include “Deep Azure” by the late Chadwick Boseman and “Stick Fly” by Lydia Diamond, which went to Broadway.
Ratcliff says the pandemic inspired an expansion in the company’s vision of what was possible—she refers to the attitude as “Yes, and…”—as in “Yes, we can do this AND that.” Kept from doing live shows, the company produced a YouTube comedy series called “The Black Side,” now in its fourth season. Congo also launched online arts education classes on making self-audition tapes and how to write for television and film.
Getting back to in-person theater last season, the company performed Aleshea Harris’ “What to Send Up When it Goes Down,” about racialized violence. That show was paired with art therapy and conversations with people in the community who had been affected by violence. Congo’s production of “How Blood Go,” by Lisa Langford, about racism in the healthcare system, was accompanied by health fairs.
Ratcliff believes that the pandemic changed the stakes of theater. “If you think, I’m going to risk my life to go to the theater, it’s got to be about more than just, ‘Oh, this is going to be a nice play, and we’ll have a nice cocktail and we’ll go home and don’t even think about it,’” says Ratcliff. She says the theater experience had to become more engaging—almost like a secular church, where “you get poured into, where you get fed, where you are in community and celebration.”
Bair Brown, a twenty-two-year-old actor and director who handles community engagement and education for Congo and won the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship for young playwrights, says the expanded vision will help bring more diverse audiences to shows.
“We’re seeing more opportunities, more discount nights, post-show talkbacks, pre-show engagements that are more inviting to different audiences, not only across race, but across age, gender identity, any demographic that has been underserved in the past,” Brown says.
Congo is focused on a three-part goal—radical generosity, radical community and radical expansion, Ratcliff says. The generosity model means that money doesn’t have to be an issue for people who want to see shows, and now fifty-percent of tickets are reserved for community organizations. Radical community includes Congo’s Celebration of Healing in partnership with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and its cooperation with other theater companies, like the Lookingglass and Steppenwolf, which hosted Congo plays last season.
Radical expansion includes more engagement with the communities that surround its satellite performance spaces, and finding a new space in the future Lillian Marcie Center for the Performing Arts at 4343 South Cottage Grove, on the site of an old Marshall Field warehouse. The center will include a 350-seat space for larger productions and traveling shows, and a one-hundred-seat space for more intimate performances, along with a restaurant and jazz club. Actor and Bronzeville native Harry Lennix is behind the project.
For its anniversary season this fall, Congo is starting with “Welcome to Matteson!” by Inda Craig-Galván, about the meeting between longtime residents of suburban Matteson and a new couple from the demolished Cabrini Green public housing project. “It’s dealing with issues that affect our community, but with a sharp comedic edge,” Ratcliff says.
Another show will be a one-man Wilson memoir called “How I Learned What I Learned,” starring Lennix. It will play at the Goodman, at the same time the Goodman reprises “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” There will also be a Roberson Fellowship play.
Ratcliff thinks that Congo has lasted so long both because of its ability to nimbly adapt to changing times, and because of the passion of its ensemble, staff and board members.
“At the end of the day, you always come to our mission, which is uniquely to serve underrepresented communities and to tell our stories,” Ratcliff says. “That’s a valuable mission that has stood the test of time.”