Abena Joan Brown used pluck and perseverance to create the ETA Creative Arts Foundation; but to build a theater, she needed money. That’s where Nick Rabkin came in.

“It will cost more than $1 million to put this all together,” says Brown, ETA’s president/producer. This year the group completed its sprawling 202-seat theater in the converted factory at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue it has owned and used for ten years. Further rehab of the same building is planned. “We got loans from banks, grants from foundations, contributions from individuals. The $75,000 loan we got from Nick and the city was the last piece of the puzzle.”

Such testimonies are sweet to Rabkin, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs who, in 1985, devised the Cultural Facilities Loan Program. His idea was to use federal antipoverty funds to help artists build studios, theaters, and dance spaces. “We offer no-interest loans on negotiable terms to artists or arts groups,” says Rabkin. “Some people are paying us back in 15 years, others take 5. We’re flexible and cheap because we’re doing this program for the artists, not to make money for us.”

The program runs against the grain of conventional economic-development strategy, which usually reserves investment for industrial, commercial, or residential development. Still, it’s not as if there are no links.

“Theater can work as a tool for economic development,” says Joan Harris, commissioner of the Cultural Affairs Department. “Theaters attract people to neighborhoods; once the people are there, maybe they’ll get hungry and look for a place to eat. The point is, you’re bringing new resources into the community.”

“I know from my own experience in the theater business,” says Rabkin, “that many arts groups need to expand or rehab their current space, but they don’t know how to finance these projects.” Before he went to work for the city in 1983, Rabkin was business manager of the Organic Theater. “They’ll put all of their money into a production; they can’t save for capital development.

“I tell them, ‘The way to develop a theater is to get a loan from a bank.’ But by and large, they’re scared to borrow money. They have this old immigrant notion of money, which is that they should put it in their socks and spend it when they need it. And by and large, banks aren’t willing to take a risk on an arts group. The city’s economic-development department doesn’t want to use its money in this area–they’re concentrating on industrial development. It’s our department’s job.”

In 1987, the city awarded Rabkin’s department $250,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant monies to distribute as low-interest loans to not-for-profit arts groups. Because this money is specifically for capital improvements, and the amounts awarded are fairly small, the number of qualified arts groups is not large. They must already have a solid financial base and a good enough track record to give commercial investors confidence. Last year, in addition to ETA’s loan, $10,000 went to the Chicago Dramatists Workshop, and $15,000 to the Joel Hall Dancers, which helped them convert a former tool-and-die factory at 1225 W. School into a dance studio.

“In Abena’s case,” says Rabkin, “the loan was a tool for development in an area where private sources aren’t investing. In Lakeview, where Joel Hall is, we’re helping art survive in the face of a lot of private investment. Artists will pioneer a community like Lakeview, and then after it gentrifies, they’re moved out because they can’t afford the rent. If Joel Hall didn’t move into School Street, that building probably would be a yuppie loft. To keep Lakeview more than yuppie lofts, you need a subsidy.”

It’s not easy. For one thing, the Reagan administration has reduced funding for the CDBG program; the Department of Cultural Affairs may not have any money next year for its loan program. In addition, there are few, if any, banks or private developers willing to loan to artists. Such high-profile theater companies as Steppenwolf and Second City can find lenders. But most private investors treat art like housing: if it won’t make them money, they won’t invest a dime. To make his program work, Rabkin had to find successful troupes that still needed a boost from the city to expand. ETA, which has longevity and a commitment to Chicago, was an obvious choice.

ETA is dedicated to producing plays written by and about African-Americans, says Brown, whose first name was given to her by an Ashanti king she met during a 1972 visit to Ghana. Brown says it means “female born on Tuesday–fire.”

“We present original works by African-American authors. We have plays that could run forever. But I don’t believe we should get hung up with a hit,” says Brown. “Our theme is: ‘ETA, always different, always good.’ Nobody can convince me that people want to see The King and I for the one thousandth time. As we develop artists, we also develop our audiences.

“We go back to the 1950s, when we were Drama, Inc., a group founded by Lillian Thompkins. Lillian left a legacy. She insisted we study theater so that we know everything about the business. We sold tickets, built stages, acted, and directed. It was very trying. We all had day jobs. We didn’t make a living from this business.”

After Thompkins died, Brown organized the Penthouse Players, a troupe that performed in nightclubs and cabarets. In 1969, she created Ebony Talent Associates to “develop a strategy for booking and promoting African-American actors,” Brown says. John Johnson, publisher of Ebony magazine, sued her group, claiming their name was a trademark infringement. The case was settled out of court: Johnson paid them some money, and Brown agreed to change the group’s name to ETA.

“That was a big break for us,” says Brown. “We were no longer a small fry. People heard about us. They were asking, ‘Who are these “Ebony” people that Johnny Johnson’s suing?'”

In 1978, Brown found the location for her permanent theater.

“Lillian [Thompkins] always said, ‘You gotta have a place, you gotta have a place,'” Says Brown. “We did most of our shows at the YWCA at 62nd and Drexel, but we had to move to other spaces for bigger shows. So I asked [real estate broker] Dempsey Travis to find us a place. One day Dempsey called me–it must have been about 8:30 in the morning–and he says, ‘I think I found your place.’ I jumped out of my house and went right over and said, ‘This is it.’ When Dempsey told me I could have it for $35,000, I said, ‘I’ll just take this bad girl.'”

Brown paid $2,000 of her own money down as a deposit. And then she called on the South Shore Bank for a mortgage.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have an easy time getting a loan because, let’s be honest, bankers are in business to make money,” Brown says. “And this place looked like a dump. It was an old factory–they made storm windows here. Mary Houghton and Milton Davis from South Shore Bank came over to look, and Mary said, ‘Joan, are you sure?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ We worked a deal. The bank lent me $24,500, and I advanced the rest of the money.”

It will cost over $1 million to rehab the building totally. The theater’s seats are plush and comfortable; there’s plenty of legroom; the floor is carpeted. Backstage are two dressing rooms and rehearsal space.

“Last season we were at about 76 percent capacity in our season-ticket sales,” says Brown. “I don’t worry about selling season tickets. And I don’t worry about newspaper reviews. Theater reviews don’t matter that much for us. People don’t come to a play here because they read about it in the newspaper. African-Americans don’t believe what they read in the newspaper. They don’t believe white people will write the truth. Our best advertisement is word of mouth.

“I’m not even going to pretend to be modest; I think this is a beautiful theater. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished. It’s not just me, it’s Okoro Harold Johnson, our cofounder and artistic director; Darryl Goodman, our technical director; Margaret Lucas, our business manager; Ken Simmons, our facility’s manager; Runako Jahi, coordinator of our youth and children program. It’s our board of directors, headed by Milton Davis; the auxiliary which has been with us since 1972; and the 300-plus volunteers who have worked with us in a number of capacities. This is a team. We have a staff of 14. Our annual budget will be $526,000 in fiscal year ’89. We’ve got 15,565 square feet of space here. We represent something.

“You have to put our trek in historical context. In the early days, black theater companies did shows that had mostly to do with white people. Then in the 40s there was a movement to desegregate Hollywood. Black theaters found themselves as a training ground for African-American performers who wanted to move on to the white theater world. There was not much permanency. Then we moved into the ‘not’ period. That’s where people were saying, ‘Let’s not do this, ’cause it will offend white people.’

“Then came the 60s–a time of drastic, irrevocable change, particularly in the conscience of African-American people. People were addressing the question of who we are as a people. There were plays by Lonnie Elder, Lorraine Hansberry–A Raisin in the Sun was the first play that had to do with black people and the relationships they have with each other. During the 60s, we struggled to define the African-American experience. That’s where our theater comes from. We have a greater obligation, a big role to play in the community.”

Hall, whose 12-person dance troupe has performed across the country and in Europe, also feels a connection to community; in this case, however, arts groups help keep Lakeview from becoming a kind of wasteland of dreary town houses and city-style subdivisions.

“Without the arts–without dance or theater–there is no community, there is no Lakeview,” says Hall. “We must realize that they are essential.”

Hall had been renting a studio space for his troupe and dance school on North Clark. The rent there was exorbitant, however, and he put out word that he wanted new digs. It was then that he and his partner, Joseph Ehrenberg, the troupe’s managing director, met developers Eric Gerstner and Michael Green. They had already bought the building on School and wanted to rehab it as commercial space but with at least one artist tenant. “We were trying to make it in real estate, but our hearts are in the arts,” says Gerstner. “We wanted to develop this building as an art space.”

“I want to stay in Chicago,” says Hall. “This is my home. I don’t think of this as the ‘second city.’ I don’t think of myself as a second-city artist. I think of myself as a first-city artist. There was a point when I thought about leaving Chicago. That’s not unusual. Some of the greatest choreographers in the world–people like Bob Fosse, Talley Beatty, and Katherine Dunham–came out of Chicago. But they had to leave because no one said, ‘We will support you.’ They had to leave because no one said, ‘We realize that what you are doing is important to our community.’ Eric and Michael and Nick, too, are saying, ‘We understand your relationship to the community–we want to make it possible for you to stay.'”

Developers Green and Gerstner were able to buy the School Street building cheap and then, because the two did much of the work themselves, rehab it at below-market costs, says Rabkin. Joel Hall rehabbed its own space: the city’s loan went directly to the Hall troupe, providing $15,000 of the $25,000 it needed to build offices, dressing rooms, and two dance studios.

“What we have here is a nice studio where my dance troupe can rehearse and where we will offer dance classes,” says Hall. “We’re very excited, because we are part of this neighborhood. Men and women can come here after work–they can bring their children here for classes during the day. Because of this project, there will be art in Lakeview. You can’t tell me the city isn’t better off.”

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