A Black woman in a light-colored blouse stands left next to a Black man in a dark suit jacket and shirt.
Neel McNeill (left), executive director of Definition Theatre, and artistic director Tyrone Phillips Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Stages of Survival is an occasional series focusing on Chicago theater companies, highlighting their histories and how they’re surviving—and even thriving—in a landscape that’s become decidedly more challenging since the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown.

Last month’s report from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and SMU DataArts, “Navigating Recovery: Arts and Culture Financial and Operating Trends in Chicago,” contained some fairly grim numbers for Chicago theater. As Reader columnist Deanna Isaacs wrote, “In 2022, in-person attendance at performing arts events was down a stunning 59 percent from the 2019 level, while the number of programs presented declined ‘nearly two-thirds.’”

But there was also an interesting fact noted within the report: BIPOC organizations bucked the trend of shrinking individual donations “with a 46% increase in individual contributions that supported 5% more of their total expenses over time.” BIPOC organizations also increased their staffing and “stood out in their commitment to hiring artists, increasing their artistic fold by more than 80% from 2019 to 2022.”

For Definition Theatre, bucking the trend as a BIPOC-focused organization also means moving forward with plans to open their own built-from-the-ground-up arts center in Woodlawn. But Definition isn’t just interested in serving theater artists and audiences. Founded as a non-Equity company over ten years ago by Tyrone Phillips and Julian Parker, graduates of the theater program at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, they’ve been working to grow deeper roots within their south-side community by partnering with everyone from local entrepreneurs to high school students. Their mission statement reads: “We celebrate stories created with, inspired by, and intended for people and communities of color. Through the act of making, Definition expands perspectives, stewards resources, and bridges the possibility found at the intersection of art, innovation, and education.” 

Their production history includes, most recently, the Chicago premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview, as well as highly praised productions of White by James Ijames (winner of the 2022 Pulitzer for Fat Ham and a Definition ensemble member); a 2016 coproduction of Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi with New Colony (later renamed New Coordinates, that company is no longer operating); and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, presented in association with the Goodman in 2017.

Definition first announced plans to open their own space in May 2019, when they received $1.6 million in seed money from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. The original plan was to take over an old church in Woodlawn and convert it into a theater and community center. 

That plan has since morphed into building a brand-new space. Executive director Neel McNeill explains, “We ran into a bunch of problems that you come up with when trying to rent and rehab. And so we went back to the city, because very much our initiative was sprouted from the Year in Chicago Theater [2019] and really understanding the inequities in theater that existed at that time and still do exist now. And for us, it was, ‘OK, this is a city initiative. City, you should be helping us sort of create this project.’ You know, this is something that we all need in a community that is becoming really an exciting hot spot.” (The theater will be about a mile and a half from the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.)

McNeill notes that she and Phillips selected a plot of land at 6400 S. Cottage Grove in part for its proximity to public transportation, but then made an exciting discovery. “We found out that Lorraine Hansberry’s family actually owned the land. So it’s like literally building up from the ancestors.” They hope to have construction completed by the end of 2025; meantime, they will be announcing their 2024 season and temporary venues soon.

Two Black women and a Black man stand around a dining room table. The woman on the left and the man on the right are standing with arms outstretched facing the woman at the rear center, as if arguing with her.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, presented by Definition Theatre in spring 2023 Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Phillips, who serves as Definition’s artistic director and is also a busy freelance director in town (his stellar production of Twelfth Night is currently onstage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater), notes that the pandemic shutdown and shift in building plans was beneficial for the company’s larger vision. 

“Just because of how we were positioned, it allowed us to actually grow and kind of start new programming that is really at the foundation of what the organization’s mission is. I talk about it all the time. It took the pandemic to really bring us here to say, ‘OK, how does the community realize that theater can be a part of how they literally thrive and flourish and grow, and that we should be in community, [that] we should be in conversation with each other as a community?”

One of the initiatives Definition undertook is the Innovator Small Business Cohort, created in partnership with community development lab 37 Oaks and investment firm Promise Holdings LLC. Participants receive space, resources, and coaching in a free three-month program designed for Black and Brown product-based entrepreneurs to learn “how to conduct sustainable and scalable community business.”

Phillips notes that the inspiration for the Innovator program came in part from a friend who was excited by Definition’s work and had artistic inclinations of their own that hadn’t been fully realized. “The thing that connects us all is the thing I work with with playwrights all the time: bring big ideas to fruition—something that’s living on paper,” says Phillips. “But making it an actual living entity that people need and want more of is a different thing. I think artists and entrepreneurs share big ideas becoming reality. We’ve found artists want to hang out with business people and business people want to hang out with artists.” Some previous participants in the cohort include fashion creators Lotus Noir Company, and Sista Dolls, which creates handcrafted dolls and items celebrating Black women and girls. (Many of the participants, as both McNeill and Phillips note, are Black women.)

McNeill notes that supporting local entrepreneurs also builds audiences for Definition. “I feel like we’re doing a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We understand what’s happening in the community based on the type of businesses that are coming in and approaching us. We have really candid conversations, like, ‘Hey, outside of just your business, what else is going on? What else are you excited about?’ And many of them oftentimes are like, ‘I had aspirations to be in the arts, but I felt like it wasn’t something that I could actually take on.’ And so they’re excited to not only feed into the Innovator but also feed into the work. We offer them free tickets to every single production that we do. Once you’re done with the program, you’re not gone forever.”

Like many companies, Definition also offers a robust lineup of theater classes. One innovative element they’re particularly proud of is the By Design Fellowship, a year-long program for local high school students that allows a student to shadow a Definition designer throughout the process for a production, from the ideas stage to completion. The goal is that they will be ready to step into professional-level work early on. “We want to make sure we have a strong commitment to the next generation of artists,” says Phillips.

That includes fostering new work by BIPOC writers. Their digital Amplify series, which started during the pandemic, presents scenes from new works online in an annual festival. The winners receive $3,000 and a further two-year development program with Definition. Some of the writers involved in Amplify include rising local playwrights Omer Abbas Salem, Tina Fakhrid-Deen, and India Nicole Burton.

Phillips points out that one reason Definition came through the pandemic relatively well is that “We just weren’t at a capacity where we had a big staff or we had to lay people off. We were always really operating within our means. We were just responsible. And so that’s a whole different conversation and article we can have about institutions of color and the support they receive.”

But McNeill, in line with the DCASE report, notes that there also seems to be a shift in funder priorities after the pandemic shutdown and the protests for racial and social justice of 2020. “Prior to the pandemic, we were small, we were figuring it out. We had an opportunity to grow. And I feel like what we’re seeing is almost like what I’ve heard described as like a restructuring or resizing. You see less of those dollars going to those larger organizations and you’re seeing people really hone in and focus on those organizations that have been there serving a very specific community—leaders of color or artists of color who have really found success. I wouldn’t even say ‘found success,’ because I don’t believe that they were not successful before, but I think their work is all really starting to garner the attention that it deserves.”