“Chicago produces more black plays than any other place in the world,” says director Chuck Smith, who’s partly responsible for the thriving African-American theater community here. “You’ve got the three main black companies–ETA, Black Ensemble, and the Chicago Theatre Company. You’ve got new companies like Onyx and MPAACT coming up. Then you have nonblack companies producing African-American work. I think it’s the healthiest environment in the world.”

That wasn’t the case when Smith started doing theater here 30 years ago. The former marine says he “stumbled” into acting in 1964 when friends asked him to join the Dramatic Art Guild, which they’d created after realizing there wasn’t much of an outlet for their interests. Smith, who worked for the post office, then began studying theater part-time at Loop College.

By the 70s he was directing plays. His first professional production was the Jeff-nominated Eden at Victory Gardens in 1978. In 1984 Smith helped found the Chicago Theatre Company. But at that time, he recalls, “We weren’t getting any plays with quality writing.” So Smith, now an acting instructor at Columbia College, along with his colleagues and African-American theater members, created the Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Playwriting, named for the black Chicago playwright best known for his work for the Federal Theater Project in the 30s.

“We thought a contest would help,” says Smith. “It wasn’t meant to solve the problem.” But the $2,000 award for original full-length plays by African-Americans about African-American experiences appeared to do just that. The national contest, which gives playwrights an opportunity to have their work staged at Columbia, has attracted submissions from new and professional writers (though scripts that have been professionally produced are ineligible). The contest has put a spotlight on Chicago and made playwrights aware of the city’s production opportunities. The last two prizewinners, The Temple and North Star, have gone on to receive professional stagings.

“It’s been a process over 15 years to get nonblack companies to actually seek out and want to do black plays and work with the directors and actors,” Smith says. “This hasn’t just happened. The League of Chicago Theaters has had annual minority auditions every spring for ten years. Union and nonunion directors and actors come, and casting directors from all the major companies come. They look forward to it.”

Duane Chandler, a Rutgers graduate, won the 1996 Theodore Ward Prize for his play The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee, which he wrote as part of his senior thesis. The two-hour play is based on the infamous syphilis study done on poor farmers in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the 30s and follows the lead character over five decades.

Previews of The Trees Don’t Bleed in Tuskegee are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM at the Columbia College Theater/ Music Center, 72 E. 11th. The play opens Sunday at 7 PM and runs through next Sunday, February 25. Tickets are $2. Call 663-1600, ext. 6126, for more info.

–Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / J.B. Spector.