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Drama Notes: black theaters eye the prize

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Vincent Williams dates his love of show business back to the 1968 Oscars. "That was the year Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn tied for best actress," says the 36-year-old Williams. "They showed clips of the nominees, and I remember sitting there in front of the TV--just a little kid--watching Streisand sing 'Don't Rain on My Parade.' She was pretty--strange-looking, but pretty. I thought to myself: 'Who's this lady singing on this boat?'"

If Streisand impressed Williams, so did the idea of awards--and the role they can play in fostering excitement about the performing arts. A sometime community-theater actor and stage manager who makes his living as a bank teller, Williams has set up the Black Theatre Alliance Awards to honor--and hype--Chicago's African-American theater community. Taking a stand for the arts and affirmative action at a time when both are under attack, the organization presents its first annual awards Monday at a ceremony to be hosted by Harry J. Lennix, a noted LA-based performer with roots here.

Black artists have been a major presence in Chicago theater for years, notes Goodman Theatre artistic associate Chuck Smith, who's staging the awards show. "Chicago is the largest center of African-American theater in the nation. No other city, not even New York, produces the quantity of black theater we do here. Even before the off-Loop movement, blacks had produced theater for years, going back to Theodore Ward in the 1930s," says Smith. "But we need to get the word out more. I was recently at a national black theater festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was my first time attending. All the African-American theaters were there, and they knew very little about Chicago. There is a great deal of activity. I want the world to know this."

So does Williams, a young man with lots of energy and not a little chutzpah. Paying start-up costs out of his own pocket, Williams solicited support from the city's three major black theaters--ETA Creative Arts Foundation and the Chicago Theatre Company on the south side and the Black Ensemble in Uptown. With their encouragement, he recruited about a dozen people, including Chicago Defender critic Earl Calloway and several talent agents, to form the board of directors, which also serves as a nominating committee. "I didn't want any actors or directors," says Williams. With his committee in place, he contacted artists to help produce the awards ceremony. This year's presenters include poet Gwendolyn Brooks and filmmaker Daryl Roberts.

Sixteen shows produced between September 1994 and July 1995 have been nominated in 23 categories. Distinctions are made between "straight" plays and musicals, but not between Equity and non-Equity productions, a decision that's already caused some controversy. "I don't care," Williams says. "A non-Equity actor can give a better performance than an Equity actor." He adds that next year's awards may have a category for community theater.

The top contenders for this year's black marble trophies are ETA's Stoops, Black Ensemble's Doo Wop Shoo Bop, and CTC's The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show; other nominees include shows from theaters that specialize in African-American material and themes, such as the Ma'at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre's MiLK, as well as black shows by white-run theaters, including Victory Gardens' The Colored Museum and Marriott's Lincolnshire's Dreamgirls. Williams points out that at least one nominee, set and lighting designer Patrick Kerwin, is white.

Monday's ceremony includes scenes from the six shows nominated as best play and best musical, as well as an "award of merit" tribute to ETA's highly regarded founder Abena Joan Brown. "I want to keep it condensed," says Smith. "Very, very short. I don't want anyone squirming in their seats."

As with any award, the list of who didn't get nominated arouses at least as much interest as the list of those who did. Steppenwolf Theatre's powerful revival of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf didn't make the cut; neither did Steppenwolf's hugely popular Ladysmith Black Mambazo musical Nomathemba (Hope) (not even a best-score nod). Also absent is perhaps the most significant black show last season: the Goodman Theatre's world premiere of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. Williams says it wasn't considered because "we couldn't get tickets" (a Goodman spokeswoman's response: "It was a matter of miscommunication. Of course we want to participate"). Another Goodman show, Vivisections From the Blown Mind, did get a nod--because the show's director, Chuck Smith, made sure the award committee got comped in.

"The black theater community is real excited about this," says Smith. "We've been talking about this for years. Every now and then we'd say, we need our own awards. But no one else could have done this. Vince is an outsider. He's not an active member of the theater community as we know it. In my eyes that's good. He came into it completely virgin--above all the political differences of the organizations. He's made the right moves, and everyone is for him. He hasn't turned anybody off. I think that's amazing. I know I would have never tried to do this."

The first annual Black Theatre Alliance Awards will take place Monday, September 18, at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place. The evening begins with a reception at 8 PM, followed by the awards presentation at 9. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door; advance tickets are on sale Saturday, September 16, from 2 to 4 PM at the Chicago Theatre Company in the Parkway Community House, 500 E. 67th. For more information, call 949-0704.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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