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History of Chicago's African American Theatre, Dance

“Black Theater is Black Life” presents insider perspective of contemporary performing arts

EVANSTON, Ill. --- An oral history of Chicago’s African American theatre and dance communities in the last 40 years is only the third book to explore the long history of Chicago’s dynamic theatre scene and the first to focus exclusively on black theatre artists.

“Black Theater is Black Life,” co-authored by Northwestern theatre and African American studies professor Harvey Young and New College of Florida sociologist Queen Meccasia Zabriskie, contains 23 interviews that provide an insider’s perspective of Chicago’s contemporary performing arts scene.

“Our job was to listen as the artists mined their memories, shared their experiences and helped write a history that had never before been written,” Young says. “The goal was to get a representative sample of artists so we met with emerging and veteran producers, directors, choreographers, designers, actors, teachers and audience members.”

Published by Northwestern University Press and due out later this month, “Black Theatre is Black Life” pays particular attention to performing arts institutions that arose in African American communities.

“The local and national reputation of Chicago’s black neighborhoods and black Chicagoans are too often associated with crime and violence,” says Young, who recently edited “The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre.” “Our book offers an alternative narrative by focusing on the vibrant and sophisticated artistry emerging across the Chicago area by artists of color.”

Among those interviewed are Jackie Taylor, the founder and artistic director of Black Ensemble Theatre, who recalls growing up in the then rich arts community of the Cabrini-Green housing project: dance company founder Najwa I, who performed with Count Basie and Duke Ellington in Chicago’s dance concert halls; Playwright and Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith, who remembers Chicago’s vibrant theatre scene of the 1970s; and dancer and dance troupe founder Darlene Blackburn, who traveled to Ghana and Nigeria to trace the development of West African dance and drum practices in Chicago.

Young will be in conversation with Chris Jones, senior theatre critic at the Chicago Tribune, Nov. 24 when the two talk about their respective Chicago theatre history books at the 2013 Chicago Book Expo. Jones is author of “Bigger, Brighter, Louder: 150 Years of Chicago Theater as Seen by Chicago Tribune Critics.”

“Black Theatre is Black Life,” takes its name from the theme of the inaugural Black Arts Week hosted in 1974 by Chicago’s Black Theatre Alliance (now the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago). But it also reflects the power of theatre and dance as an alternative path for Chicago’s youth, Young says.

As Geraldine Williams, a dancer who worked with celebrated modern dance pioneers Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey, says: “My little gangbanging boys, you want to hit something, play the drums.”