Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center Credit: Courtesy Black Ensemble

Back in 2012, just as Black Ensemble Theater was moving into its brand-new home in Uptown, the theater’s founder and CEO, Jackie Taylor, gave an interview to the Reader‘s Tony Adler. “I always knew that the theater company had to be more than just a name, it had to have an asset, it had to have a foundation,” Taylor told Adler. “Owning your own space, having your own theater solidifies you in a way that nothing else can. So when I started thinking about Black Ensemble as an institution that survives my lifetime, I knew that I had to start thinking in terms of transformation and solidification of the business.”

The move toward that transformation and solidification just got a big boost this month with the announcement of a $5 million grant to BET from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire ex-wife of Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos who has pledged to give away most of her fortune in her lifetime. 

Black Ensemble wasn’t the only Chicago-based organization to receive money in the third round of grants (which totaled $2,739,000,000) from Scott. Chicago’s Cultural Treasures, an initiative focused on providing support in many areas for BIPOC-led-and-focused arts and culture organizations, received $8 million, as did Pilsen’s National Museum of Mexican Art. The University of Illinois-Chicago got a whopping $40 million (the largest grant in its history), and Kennedy-King College received $5 million. (A complete list of recipients in this round is available at Scott’s Medium page.)

Now in its 46th year of operation, Black Ensemble, like most theaters, has suffered drastic drops in revenue from the COVID-19 shutdown. So the gift comes at a most opportune time.

“We lost almost two years now of earned revenue. So the grant just came at a very very vital time in our existence,” says Taylor. “Most of the grant is going to allow us to sustain. Well, of course we’ve paid some major bills that we have had for many years and were going in a circle with because we never could get them paid off. And the rest is to be able to survive at least another year on—because ticket sales are not going to just automatically come back to where they were. So we have to plan accordingly. So even though $5 million sounds like a lot, I sure wish it was 10.” Or, as Scott wrote, “Would [these organizations] still benefit from more (more advocates, more money, more volunteers)? Yes.”

The grants from Scott came without an application process, and are not earmarked to particular programs within an organization. That perceived lack of transparency has come under some criticism in the philanthropic world. A New York Times article quoted Maribel Morey, founding executive director of the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences. “MacKenzie Scott is a private citizen, but she is playing a public role . . . Much as a judge has to explain their logic, or a senator has to answer to their constituents, a philanthropist owes it to the public to explain how and why they came to their decisions.”

Scott wrote, “Because we believe that teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use, we encouraged them to spend it however they choose.” She and her advisers chose “286 high-impact organizations in categories and communities that have been historically underfunded and overlooked.”

For Taylor, a major goal is to move closer to finishing the company’s long-planned second stage at the Black Ensemble Theater and Cultural Center. While they still need more funds to complete the transformation of the upstairs space, Taylor sees that second stage as an incubator, and one that is closer to being a reality, thanks to Scott’s grant. 

“I’d like it to be, first of all, a place for challenging youth,” notes Taylor. “A place where young people are running it, writing for it, and doing all the things that you need to do to keep a theater running. I want it to be a place where new audiences are developed, so that we keep our main audience happy on our mainstage, and then we start developing other audiences—younger audiences, maybe audiences that are not into musicals, but will have all kinds of different theater genres going on in that theater.”

New members of Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble, clockwise from top left: Marisa Carr, Keelay Gipson, Stacey Rose, Isaac Gómez
New members of Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble, clockwise from top left: Marisa Carr, Keelay Gipson, Stacey Rose, Isaac GómezCredit: Courtesy Victory Gardens

Victory Gardens announces playwrights ensemble

For most of its 47 years, Victory Gardens Theater has fostered new writing through its playwrights ensemble. But the departures of former artistic director Dennis Začek in 2011 and in 2020 of his successor, Chay Yew, led to disruptions and bad blood, with the ensemble feeling shut out of the leadership decisions made by the theater’s board. The ensemble Začek had put together was put on emeritus status by Yew shortly after his arrival, while the ensemble Yew had in place resigned en masse in protest of the board naming then-executive director Erica Daniels to replace Yew as “executive artistic director.” Daniels resigned shortly after the ensemble announced their departure.

But current VG artistic director Ken-Matt Martin (whose appointment was announced in March) has taken steps to avoid some of the pitfalls of the past. Last week, the company named four playwrights as the current ensemble cohort: Marisa Carr, Keelay Gipson, Isaac Gómez, and Stacey Rose.

Gómez is well known to Chicago audiences from plays such as La Ruta at Steppenwolf and The Leopard Play, or Sad Songs for Lost Boys at Steep, and is a former literary manager for Victory Gardens. The other three haven’t been as widely produced in Chicago, but they have lengthy resumes around the nation.

Carr, a native of Milwaukee whose work has been produced at Milwaukee Rep and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, among many other places, is also a cofounder and former artistic director of the Twin Cities’ Turtle Theater Collective, which focuses on contemporary work by Native artists. She is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe from the Turtle clan. In an interview in March, Martin expressed a desire to bring more Native and Indigenous voices into the company. When I talked to him this week, he noted that Carr “will be one of many Native artists over the coming years.”

Rose is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and like Carr, has spent time with work in development through the Goodman Theatre’s playwrights’ unit. Gipson is based in New York, and like the rest of the new ensemble, he’s received commissions, productions, and residencies from many theaters.

For Martin, a key element to bringing in the new playwrights came out of his ongoing “listening tour” with Victory Gardens artists and staff members, past and present, including emeritus members of the playwrights ensemble. 

“One of the biggest things in talking to members of the original playwrights ensemble, as well as folks who were from Chay’s era, was getting a deeper understanding of the kind of lack of structure and guarantees and everything else that had previously existed,” says Martin. He and literary manager Kat Zukaitis, whom he credits as a vital part of the decision-making process for selecting the new ensemble, wanted to make sure that the playwrights had access to board meetings, “so that these artists also have a deep opportunity to feel more engaged and aware of what’s actually happening in the rooms where the decisions get made.” Martin also credits Victory Gardens resident directors Lili-Anne Brown and Jess McLeod for the input and advocacy they’ve provided.

The new ensemble will also play a role in the selection of Victory Gardens’s acclaimed Ignition festival of new work, which will probably return sometime in the 2022 season. 

Says Martin, “From them, there’s no sense of ‘We’re competition’ or anything like that, because they have their guaranteed slots. They’re gonna get produced, at least one world premiere, and they’re gonna get an Ignition slot, right? And so it’s beautiful because there’s a sense of community at play,” adding, “It just makes it a more involved process, which means artists feel like they’re not just on the outside of decisions being passed down to them, but they’re involved in the conversations leading up to them.”

The current cohort will also be involved in selecting those who follow them. The current terms for the ensemble expire in 2024. Martin explains, “The reason for that, to be fully transparent, is that I wanted it to be concurrent with my own contract term. So that if and when, hopefully that is a long time from now, I decide to transition or go away or whatever that might be, they will always be transitioning with me.” Which, given the tensions that erupted in the wake of past artistic transitions, seems a prudent step.

But mostly, Martin seems excited about having four more voices to call upon as he embarks on the journey to reopen Victory Gardens after the COVID shutdown. (The next season has yet to be announced.) “Between Jess and Lil and now the four of them, that really is what is making up my larger kind of artistic base of leaders that I get to run things by. I call them all the time, they call me. We throw things at the wall with one another.”  v