The Other Jackie

After Chester Gregory dives into his last rubber-legged split without missing a note, bringing the audience for The Jackie Wilson Story to its feet, the impresario of the Black Ensemble Theater makes her entrance. Jackie Taylor–who spotted Gregory’s talent, knew he could bring the soul singer back to life, and wrote (and produced and directed) The Jackie Wilson Story to make it happen–sashays to center stage in a fire-engine-red, I’m-the-woman gown. It’s a sweet moment for the angry kid from Cabrini who grew up to be an actress, saw a wall where there should have been opportunity for African-Americans in theater, and founded BET 25 years ago to do something about it. “We’ve been doing this show for 17 or 18 months,” she says, as the audience shouts approval, “and we’re just gonna keep going.”

This week Taylor takes The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart Is Crying, Crying…) to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, where it will be featured in the prestigious opening-night slot. Taylor says this is the first time Chicago’s been represented in the event, which this year showcases 20 troupes from the U.S., Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean and is expected to draw an audience of 50,000. The six-day, biennial festival was founded 12 years ago by North Carolina Black Repertory Company head Larry Leon Hamlin.

Taylor is in show business because of John Houston, the Chicago Park District drama instructor who caught her throwing rocks at the Seward Park field house and gave her a choice between the police station and drama classes. The nuns who let her use the grade school gym as a theater if she promised to behave in class helped too, Taylor says. After college she worked at Victory Gardens, the Organic, and the Goodman; appeared in a film (Cooley High); and worked for a time with American International Pictures. “I realized the scripts in the film industry for African-American people were horrible in terms of messages–antiwomen, antiblack. I didn’t want to play those kinds of roles. I thought, ‘We need more opportunity for black artists and we need to control the message.'”

Taylor started BET with a $1,200 loan in 1976 in a shared 150-seat theater in Old Town. Its first show, a musical she wrote with additional music by Michael Ward, was The Other Cinderella, now a company classic reprised every other year. BET moved on to back-room spaces at the Organic and Victory Gardens before landing in the Jane Addams Center Hull House on Broadway and then at its longtime home in the Uptown Center Hull House. They mount five shows annually, hitting their stride in recent years with a string of original musicals about black musicians, including The Jackie Wilson Story and their newest, Dynamite Divas. This fall, to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary, Taylor will bring back five of BET’s biggest hits: The Other Cinderella, Muddy Waters, Sweet Mama Stringbean, Chicago’s Golden Soul, and Doo Wop Shoo Bop. The annual budget for the nonprofit, Equity house is now about $900,000.

Not too long ago it looked like BET might move to the downtown theater district, but Taylor says it’s not going to happen. “In three or four years we may outgrow this space; we have to start thinking beyond 150 seats, but we are not going to the theater district,” she says. Locations under consideration now are the nascent Uptown entertainment center and the McClurg Court theater, though at this point, Taylor says, it’s all talk. In the meantime she’s looking forward to a national tour for The Jackie Wilson Story, beginning with smaller midwestern venues in October and hitting cities like Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia starting in February.

A Show of Force

Live Bait Theater’s Live on Stage, Totally Blue! teams real-life cops and kids for two nights of improv this week. The show is the culmination of three summers of workshops that began with a creative writing program for police, originally funded by a grant from the Louis R. Lurie Foundation. Live Bait artistic director Sharon Evans, who conducted the workshop, soon discovered the officers were more interested in acting than writing. “Everybody wants to be Dennis Farina when they retire,” she says. In an attempt to reach out to teenagers, the second summer’s workshop was half cops, half kids, and all improv. This year there are 16 participants. “Teens and cops have tense relations,” Evans explains. “No one knew how to bring them together in ways that aren’t geeky.” Live Bait just got a $10,000 grant to continue its Police-Teen Link program from the Chicago Community Trust, and Evans won’t be surprised to see a cops-only theater troupe in the near future. The officers are itching to do a show with a script, she says. “They want to write it.”

This week’s improv is the first chance for the public to see what they’ve been up to so far. Live on Stage, Totally Blue! will be performed July 30 and 31 at 7 at Live Bait, followed by a question-and-answer session. It’s free; call 773-871-1212 for reservations.

Nothing Like the Local Scene

When the Chicago Office of Tourism and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau teamed up to market the city to out-of-towners as a unique vacation destination, they wanted to include a hotel-and-theater package. So what show did they pick? The road show now stopping at the “Cadillac” Palace Theatre. Mamma mia! What’s that about? City tourism director Dorothy Coyle says the selection was made on the basis of timing and location. “We wanted something that would run through the summer,” Coyle says. “The timing for Mamma Mia! was right on, and there was a lot of marketing support for it. And it’s at a downtown theater, easily accessible for people staying downtown.” Coyle says this is a pilot program that will be evaluated after Labor Day and could be expanded next year. Since the beginning of June they’ve booked more than 2,600 room nights through their 877-CHICAGO phone number and Web site. She says they’re averaging 23,000 phone calls a month and have had two million hits on the site.

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