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You know, despite the hardships, Kuumba was a big part of my life,” says Val Gray Ward, founder of one of Chicago’s first African-American independent theaters. “The growing pains were hell. I mean at one time we had to put cars and homes up on the block as collateral to keep it going.”
Evolving out of the black arts movement and known for its rousing gospel, jazz, and blues productions, Kuumba Theater was started in 1968 in Ward’s south-side home. Lacking a formal theater house, the company’s players took their theater to the audience by going to schools, churches, and playgrounds to perform dances, poetry, street theater dialogues, and music–introducing the ritual form of theater to people who previously had little exposure to it. They relied heavily on improvisation and audience involvement, often using such methods as the call and response used in African-American churches.
Eventually the company found a home at the South Side Community Art Center before moving to an old warehouse on South Michigan. “During our time there, the gangbangers would break into our cars,” says Ward. But before long these same kids took advantage of the cultural opportunities Kuumba had to offer inner-city youths. “Eventually they started building sets for our theater. We became an extended family, and they started going to theater and writers’ meetings with us.” By 1981 Kuumba had moved from the south side to the Loop, producing such works as The House of the Blues and The Mighty Gents. It also made Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street, a film documentary about the Chicago black entertainment mecca during the 30s, 40s, and 50s that earned 21 Emmys for Channel 11, which financed the production.
Despite its successes, after moving to Malcolm X College on the west side–in a neighborhood with both new town houses and the Henry Horner Homes housing project as a backdrop–Kuumba fell silent, stopping production activities in 1993. The reasons for its shutdown run the gamut from a lack of funds to a lack of fresh material. “When the other theaters began incorporating more contemporary black themes, such as twists on love relationships, Kuumba was not there to meet that need,” says one former Kuumba member. Adding to the theater’s troubles was Ward’s departure when she moved to New York with her husband, Francis, who got a job teaching journalism at Syracuse University. (Ward, who’s recently recovered from surgery for a brain tumor, returned to Chicago last week to perform at Chicago State University during its Black Writers’ Conference.)
But this spring the company was resurrected with the appointment of a new executive and creative director, Deborah Crable, former Ebony/Jet Showcase host and onetime owner of Teatro Tout Bagai!, once a small theater in Lakeview. Shortly after her appointment, Crable, in conjunction with Doris Craig Norris of Hidden Stages, reproduced Kuumba’s award-winning play The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. During the Democratic convention, the theater hosted its “I Too Am American” forum and a program with Dick Gregory. Both presentations offered hands-on experience for disadvantaged youth, a Kuumba legacy that Crable plans to carry on. “Our education outreach component includes taking programs into schools and combining scenes from the likes of Shakespeare with Pushkin,” she says.
Crable says her goal is to make Kuumba Theater the hub of culture on the west side. “I’m designing programs that will bring people together and reflect the cultural richness of this area and its diversity,” she says. “We have a melting pot here. I can do that and maintain the precious memories of the theater’s founder.”
To open its fall season, Kuumba is staging an adaptation of the novel Echoes of Mercy, Whispers of Love by Elaine Ferguson, medical director of Chicago Public Schools and formerly a physician at the University of Chicago. The play begins in the aftermath of the LA riots following the Rodney King verdict and tells the story of an African-American social worker who rescues an old homeless woman who believes she’s a freed slave in search of her children. It’s showing Friday and next Friday and Saturday, November 8 and 9, at 7 at Kuumba Theater, Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren. Call 312-421-7880.