Jackie Taylor, 61, is the founder, executive director, and primary playwright for the Black Ensemble Theater. This was literally a landmark year for her and BET: the company moved into its own built-to-order space at 4450 N. Clark. —Tony Adler
I’ve always been dramatic. When I was a little girl, maybe two or three, I remember making up stories in the closet. My mother was always trying to figure out who in the hell was in there with me. I’d make up all these voices and play all these characters.
I grew up in Cabrini, which is right down the street from Wells Street, right down the street from the Gold Coast. I was a very angry kid so I’d do a lot of things that were just horrible. We broke a window and all the other kids ran faster than me and I was the one who got caught. Mr. Huston, who caught me, was the drama instructor at Seward Park, which is the park district that’s still there at Cabrini. He said, “I’m gonna give you a choice. I can either call the police, or you can come up to drama class.” That’s what really saved me. That’s what stopped me from going into one direction and pushed me into another. I never did anything else. I was always a writer. I was always a director. I was always an actor. Always. I just never wanted to do anything else except be in theater.
I was blessed to have Dennis Zacek as my professor at Loyola for all four years. Dennis was really different. He said, “Hey, this theater department is gonna operate in the real world because you gotta live in it.” It really prepared us. It was a phenomenal education.
The year that I graduated from Loyola I was accepted into Free Street Theater. Free Street, at that time, was a full-time job. Patrick Henry was my director and my teacher and my wonderful, dear, dear, friend. He was just so ahead of his time. Diversity is a code word now but Patrick threw us into that world long before it became the thing to do.
I made my first film in 1973. Cooley High propelled me into the Hollywood arena. I received what they called, at the time, a cattle call contract. That meant you were under contract with the studio. It was your job to read scripts and to do whatever role they wanted you to do. And Cooley High had a very positive message, which was violence is ignorance and destroys a community. I played the main character’s girlfriend.
I thought, well, they’re going to keep producing films like this because it was a huge success. But that was the blaxploitation period. Cooley High slipped through the cracks. They had no intention of producing positive African-American films. I remember calling my father. I said, “Dad, I’m so unhappy.” There was this role they wanted me to play where I had to learn to shoot a gun. It was just not in me. My dad said, “Hell, if you don’t wanna be there, then bring your ass home.” I called my agent and she was like, “Don’t do it, because you’ll regret it.” I said, “Nope, I’m coming home.”
I decided I was gonna start a theater company because that’s what I knew. Film at the time was just unreachable for women, let alone black women. I’m gonna start a theater company with a mission to eradicate racism. When I told people that, I thought they were gonna embrace this wonderful idea. But people were like, “You don’t wanna do that. Say you wanna cross cultural bridges, say you wanna bring people together, say anything—but don’t say that you wanna eliminate racism. Don’t start yourself out with something that is just impossible.”
I said, “No, I’m keeping my mission.” Am I gonna see it in my lifetime? Is my child gonna see it in her lifetime? I don’t think so, but I’m gonna at least be one of the planters who puts the seed in the ground.
I started Black Ensemble in 1976, at 1429 N. Wells, right down the street from [producer] Joyce Sloane and the Second City. Second City even then was selling out, and Joyce would tell people, “Just walk right down the street to the Black Ensemble. They have wonderful plays.”
I started planning [Black Ensemble’s new] building about 10 years ago. 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. 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. I put my life into this and I don’t want it go when my life goes.
There’s always a new goal. I want to build a community here on this street. I think Black Ensemble is the anchor for a transformation, kind of like what Old Town School of Folk Music did for Lincoln Park. We’re seeing transformation now, but I think there’s space for so much more.