By Ben Joravsky
The three abandoned lots along the east side of South Chicago Avenue south of 75th Street are cluttered with rubble and lined by a beat-up wooden fence. They look like they’ll stay unused forever.
But in a year or two they may be transformed into a three-acre complex housing stores, a theater, and a restaurant. Such is the dream of Abena Joan Brown, the producer-entrepreneur who plans to defy the experts once again as she expands her growing south-side theater empire.
Brown’s been exceeding expectations since the 1970s, when she turned the ETA Creative Arts Foundation from a storefront operation into one of the south side’s largest cultural institutions. The theater company now stages original shows, conducts playwriting workshops, and offers classes to hundreds of students at its headquarters on South Chicago Avenue–across the street from the empty lots.
As befits her style, Brown says of her latest expansion plan that the stakes are high. “This is not just about building a building or staging a play,” she says. “This is about economic development. This is about developing South Shore and Grand Crossing and other south-side communities. We have set a goal and we are determined. By the year 2001 we will have expanded. We will get it done.”
Brown was raised on the south side, where she graduated from Englewood High School and worked as a dancer and performer at several clubs. Though she rose through the ranks of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago in the 1960s to become chief operating officer, she never left theater.
She joined Drama, Inc., a south-side theater group founded by the late Lillian Thompkins (former wardrobe mistress for the Shubert Theatre), whom Brown credits as her mentor. “Lillian left a legacy,” she says. “She insisted we study theater so that we knew everything about the business. We sold tickets, built stages, acted, and directed. It was very trying. We all had day jobs.”
During the 60s Brown and her friends Okoro Harold Johnson, Al Johnson, and Archie B. Weston organized the Penthouse Players, a troupe that performed in nightclubs and cabarets. She also launched Ebony Talent Associates (ETA), which she describes as “a strategy for booking and promoting African-American actors.” She got a break in the 70s when John Johnson, publisher of Ebony, sued for trademark infringement. The case was settled out of court and Brown walked away with a lot of notoriety and the determination to stage shows written by African-Americans on African-American themes.
But it wasn’t enough merely to produce plays–she wanted her own space. “Lillian always said, ‘You gotta have a place, you gotta have a place,'” says Brown.
In 1979 ETA bought an abandoned storm door factory on South Chicago. During the next few years Brown raised thousands of dollars from foundations and negotiated a no-interest loan from the city. By 1987 ETA had converted the old factory into a theater.
Brown’s quick to say that ETA is bigger than any one person; she points to the business, social, and cultural leaders who sit on its board. But many of these board members are there because they found Brown’s appeal irresistible. She’s so good at selling, they say, that it doesn’t seem like selling. She’s always linked ETA to the larger struggle for African-American cultural development. “We’re not just a theater–we’re a cultural-arts institution,” says Brown. “The African-American community has not always had an institution like this within the context of its community. ETA is embedded in the community. We are the community.”
Over the years she’s managed to win coverage in mainstream publications that usually ignore the south side. A few years ago she made an uproarious acceptance speech at the Jeff Awards ceremony, calling on listeners to “bring your ass to South Shore.” The speech earned her a rousing ovation and raised her profile in the larger theater community. Last fall she was named chairman of the advisory board of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. She’s won grants and loans from both the city and the state.
“Abena is able to express what so many of us believe,” says Milton Davis, an owner and top executive at South Shore Bank and a long-standing member of the ETA board. “There was a need to build a cultural or theater institution on the south side. I love theater. I always wondered why we had to leave our community to see plays about African-Americans.”
The company has an annual budget of over $2 million. It stages six shows a year, regularly performs children’s plays, and runs a summer day camp and several outreach programs in local schools. Among its most successful plays have been Good Black, This Far by Faith, Fortunes of the Moor, and The Hooch. Its most famous workshop graduate is Kel Mitchell, star of the movie Good Burger and the Nickelodeon show Kenan & Kel.
By 1997 ETA had outgrown its space. “We don’t have enough room here to do all the things we want,” says Brown. “We need a transfer house for shows with open runs. Our commitment is still to helping playwrights develop new work, but sometimes we have a popular show that people want to see. We don’t want to have to close it, although we have our series schedule to stick to. We want to be able to let the show have its full run so everyone can see it, maximizing as much as we can.
“We’d also like some sort of food thing. Food is essential to our culture. A lot of people would like to eat something before or after a performance. Why not have a food thing right near the theater?”
In 1995 ETA bought the two smaller lots across the street. In 1997 the state proposed building a prison on the big third lot. “There was a major outcry in the community,” says Brown. “No one wanted it.”
The prison deal fell through because of a zoning conflict, and ETA wound up buying the third lot for $200,000. Now ETA’s kicking into the first phase of “Grand Crossing/South Shore: Renaissance 2001,” spreading the word and raising money.
“We own the land. Billie Holiday said, ‘God bless the child who’s got his own.’ Well, we’ve got our own,” says Brown. “The story of arts groups is that they get displaced. They fix up a space that they don’t own until the landlord sees what a lovely space he has and then evicts them. But you can’t evict us–we own the land.”
The project could cost as much as $10 million. Davis believes it can succeed. “We’re using entertainment as economic development,” he says. “That’s what this neighborhood needs more of. That’s what a lot of inner-city neighborhoods are lacking. We see this as a magnet that will attract people not only to support the theater but the restaurant. There’s nothing like it that I know of anywhere else on the south side. But I’m confident. When we bought the South Shore Bank in August of 1973, that was a time when everyone was predicting this neighborhood was going to be demolished and abandoned. It’s quite different today. There’s still a lot to be done here, especially with the commercial strips. But if you look at the housing, it’s taking off, and it’s nothing short of a miracle. Our expansion can continue that trend.”
Brown’s tuning up her pitch. “ETA is already a cultural hub. I want it to be a cultural nexus,” she says. “There may be some people less willing to come to South Shore. White people still have a problem with mobility. ‘Is it safe?’ they ask. Some of the questions we get are unbelievable. I had some folks come by here in a tour bus and they wanted to know, ‘Is this the same lake?’ I guess they thought that there was a different lake for the south and north sides. I had to tell them about Lake Michigan.
“Some people feel that if it doesn’t come from me and my people, what does it have to do with me? By choice or chance or coercion we all came from somewhere else, and in coming here we bring our traditions and cultures. The issue is, how can people coming from disparate cultures live together in one place called America? In any person’s quest to be universal, they must be planted in their own soil. We’re planted and now we’re growing.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Lloyd DeGrane.