Anti-Racism Drama Series Preview- Black Ensemble Theater teams up with Northeastern Illinois University

BET cast members Kyle Smith, Jackie Taylor and Joey Swift

Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater (BET) and Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) are engaged in a partnership for BET’s Jackie Taylor’s Anti-Racism Drama Series and Residency Program.  The series includes the staging of three one-act plays produced by the nationally renowned BET that speak to different aspects of racism. All performances have/will take place at NEIU locations between January and March 2019.

The Jackie Taylor Anti-Racism Drama Series consists of three dramatic plays written by members of BETs Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI), an educational incubator for aspiring Black playwrights. The series features works that are relevant to current events and speak to the demise of recent racial equity issues.  The plays aim to help audiences understand the devastating effects of racism and to spark conversation about what we can do as a community to recognize and denounce racism.  All performances will be followed by a discussion with the audience.

BET uses theater as a learning facilitator that purposely helps audiences respect and accept our differences while embracing our sameness as human beings. The three plays were written to motivate audiences toward having healthy, hearty and safe conversations about racism in our society. Post-show conversations will address how audiences can recognize racism on a systematic level while helping us to be active participants in denouncing and negating this ever-present issue.

This reviewer had the opportunity to interview BET Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor and Dr. Timothy R. Libretti, Acting Associate Dean, English, College of Arts and Sciences, NEIU about the vision behind and scope of the project:

Black Ensemble Theater’s Founder and CEO Jackie Taylor; photo courtesy of Black Ensemble Theater

INTERVIEW WITH JACKIE TAYLOR:

Debra Davy: “Can you tell our readers about Black Ensemble Theater’s Black Playwright’s Initiative? It’s been described as “an educational incubator” for aspiring Black playwrights.”

Jackie Taylor: “The Black Playwrights Initiative was established in 2005 out of a need to focus specifically on African American playwrights as it relates to our unique cultural heritage. The BPI is a vehicle that brings us together as a community to share resources that nourishes our skills. It is also the purpose of the BPI to increase local and national exposure for our membership. Ultimately, the goal of the Black Playwrights Initiative is to provide developmental resources to aspiring Black writers, such as: table reads, public stage readings and workshops, as well as full main stage productions, all of which are imperative to their growth as playwrights.  The BPI was also created to provide the Black Ensemble Theater with continuous scripts that speak to our mission of eradicating racism.”

Debra: “How does the new series further BET’s goal of motivating audiences to have safe and healthy dialogues about racism in our society?”

Jackie” “Racism is a systematic learned behavior that is based on building America’s economic system and protecting those who feel they are the privileged race based on the color of their skin.   Racism, which has its nucleus in slavery, was legal in this country for more than 465 years.  Once the emancipation proclamation was adopted racism became illegal according to the law but it is embedded in every aspect of the American culture right up to today. After practicing something for 5 centuries old habits are hard to break.

Racism is based on a lack of understanding and not respecting our commonalities as human beings.  We are not the same, we are different but that does not make us less than each other – that just makes us different.  Differences should not separate us – it should enhance our closeness because we benefit from the resources that understanding and respecting a difference can bring.  We are living in a culture that has to educate and rebuild ourselves based on the fact that all people are created equal.  We must talk to each other, we must have dialogue and help each other understand the fragility of humanity so that we can make ourselves stronger and live together in peace.  My Anti-Racism Drama Series is a facilitator for dialogue, so that we can better understand why Racism is a poison and be motivated to eliminate it from our human environment.  It puts the issues directly in our face – so we must respond.  That response will tell us a lot about who we are as human beings and where we stand as it relates to Racism.  You cannot solve the problem if you are not willing to admit that the problem exists and that you have a responsibility to do something about it.”

Professor Timothy R. Libretti, Acting Associate Dean, English, College of Arts and Sciences, Northeastern Illinois University; photo courtesy of Northeastern Illinois University

 INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR TIMOTHY LIBRETTI:

Debra Davy:  “Can you describe the goals and ambitions of the partnership with BET?”

Dr. Libretti: “As a regional comprehensive public university, Northeastern’s mission is in part to serve the intellectual, cultural and social needs of its region and communities. We seek to be a resource for communities in facing our pressing social challenges and improving people’s lives in our communities and making our communities stronger and healthier.

As one of the most diverse four-year institutions in the Midwest with a deep commitment to promoting the benefits of diversity, Northeastern obviously has a powerful stake as an institution of higher learning in promoting social justice issues through education. Racism is certainly one of these issues, one of these challenges, facing us.

The Black Ensemble Theater’s mission over its 40-plus years has been to eradicate racism through the theater arts. Like us, it does so through entertainment and education, having a broad presence on Chicago’s schools. In this sense, we have a shared mission, and it only made sense to join forces and bring our resources and communities together to keep fulfilling this mission with greater effectiveness.

When the Black Ensemble Theater performed the three plays in this anti-racism series last Spring at the DuSable, one of the chief comments in the vibrant discussion was that more young people needed to see these timely plays. So, I approached Jackie Taylor and playwright Ervin Gardiner, author of The National Anthem, about bringing the plays to NEIU and starting a partnership. That’s how it started. Our goals and ambitions are to help our campuses and our broader communities engage in a safe and productive conversation about racism in our city and our nation, and we think doing it through the arts—with the incomparable Jackie Taylor, the playwrights, and Northeastern’s faculty and students moderating discussions—is a great way to do that.

Theater tends to engender a creative response to the world, so we can face racism without shame, guilt, blaming or paralysis. It’s all a part of our mission of being a cultural hub for our region. And by having these plays across our campuses, at the Carruthers Center for inner City Studies and at our main campus in North Park, we hope to serve these communities and spread the work of the Black Ensemble Theater across the city.”

Debra: “What part does the University play in facilitating the series?”

Timothy: “We are providing the venues and bringing our students, staff, faculty and alumni to the shows, as well as many students from local high schools, in order to have a larger forum for discussions about racism. Northeastern has marketed the shows throughout the city, particularly in schools.

The Black Ensemble Theater is also running two Master Classes per show for our students, and our students are helping with various aspects of each show. President Gloria J. Gibson, Acting Provost Wamucii Njogu, Director of the Carruthers Center Andrea Evans, and the chair and faculty of our Communication, Media, and Theater Department (Professors Shayne Pepper, Sarah Fabian and Adam Goldstein) have been instrumental in supporting this partnership, publicizing it, and creating a great opportunity for our students, our campuses, and our broader communities.”

BET cast member Cynthia Carter

THE PLAYS:

The first play in the series was National Anthem by Ervin Gardner directed by Jackie Taylor which was presented January 17-19, 2019 at NEIU Auditorium:

This dramatic one-act play speaks to the controversy surrounding professional athletes and their right to peacefully protest. A star college athlete and pro prospect must decide whether or not to make a political stand in light of the possible consequences to his professional career.

The remaining plays and performances for The Jackie Taylor’s Anti-Racism Drama Series are: 

 In The Shadow of Justice by L. Maceo Ferris directed by Rueben D. Echoles on Thursday, February 7 at 7:30pm; Friday, February 8 at 7:30pm; and Saturday, February 9 at 7:30pm at Donn F. Bailey Legacy Hall at the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, 700 E. Oakwood Blvd.

This intense drama depicts how two young Black police detectives—one woman and one man—are forced to face corruption, brutality and murder in a South Side Chicago police precinct where they have been assigned. Will they accept business as usual or care enough to try and change a racist status quo?

BET cast members Mark Yacullo, Brian Nelson, Chris Taylor

The Plea by Reginald Williams directed by Daryl D. Brooks on Thursday, March 14 at 7:30pm; Friday, March 15 at 7:30pm; and Saturday, March 16 at 7:30pmat NEIU Stage Center Theatre (Main Campus), 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.           

The Plea addresses the violence epidemic that has engulfed so many Chicago communities resulting in senseless murders and the hopelessness and traumatic mental anguish that has consumed our neighborhoods. In particular, the play depicts how due process is withheld from so many in our criminal justice system which encourages plea-bargaining as opposed to trials that provide people with an opportunity to defend themselves.

Tickets for individual productions are $20 and can be purchased online at http://www.neiu.edu/tickets. Packages for the full series are $45 and are available by calling the Welcome Desk at (773) 442-4636. Tickets are free for Northeastern students, employees and alumni by calling the Welcome Desk or picking up tickets at the box office the night of the show.

As part of the partnership, Black Ensemble Theater will offer a Residency Program, which will allow Northeastern Illinois University students in a technical theater practicum to participate with the company in the technical aspects of producing each play. The program will give the students six (two for each play) master classes in theater areas of interest as defined by the students. All classes will be taught by the Black Ensemble play directors: Jackie Taylor, Founder and Executive Director, Daryl D. Brooks,Managing Producing Director, and Rueben Echoles, Associate Director.

Read more about Northeastern Illinois University at www.neiu.edu

For more information on the Black Ensemble Theater Company, visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org or call 773-769-4451.

All archival photos from BET productions by Alan Davis

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