Chicagoans of the Year 2011: Jackie Taylor

Impresario Idealistico

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BLACK ENSEMBLE THEATER

Ask Jackie Taylor the mission of her 35-year-old Black Ensemble Theater, and she answers, “It’s to eradicate racism through theatre.” Ask her what makes a good play, and she replies, “It has to make money.”

There’s no doubt this director, playwright, actress, singer, and educator who grew up in Cabrini Green has a mind for business. In 1976, when she was 25, Taylor started Black Ensemble Theater with a $1,200 loan. Today it has an annual budget of $3.5 million, and in November it opened the 50,000-square-foot Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center in Uptown. The premiere performance? Taylor’s hit musical from 2000, The Jackie Wilson Story.

Clearly Taylor is onto something with her belief that idealism can turn a profit. “Let me explain it this way,” she says. “When the Wright Brothers said, ‘We’re gonna make a machine that flies,’ I’m sure people said, ‘OK, they’re nuts.’ But when they got that machine off the ground, that sure in the hell meant something. Yes, it started as idealistic, but today the airlines are a trillion-dollar industry.”

Her company initially took up residence within larger theatres before settling in at the Uptown Hull House in 1987. But it had an immediate success in 1976 with The Other Cinderella, a musical starring, and based on a script by, Taylor. It wasn’t until 1984, though, with Muddy Waters: The Hoochie-Coochie Man, that the company hit upon a formula—musicals about inspirational black figures—that would attract the kind of mixed-race audiences that Taylor had always hoped for.

Over the years, Taylor has also developed educational outreach programs, served on numerous theatre boards, and acted in movies, including Barbershop 2: Back in Business. With the new cultural center, the 60-year-old has cemented her legacy. “When I started a theatre, I wasn’t thinking about an institution,” she says. “But as I grew older, I realized this had to go beyond me and my lifetime. I’m hoping that one day our board of directors will say, ‘That mission that we have to eradicate racism—what does that mean? We’re so beyond that. How can we make this relevant now?’ That’s my dream.”

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