eta Creative Arts Foundation sits on a quiet strip of South Chicago Avenue, in the heart of the South Side. Though dilapidated residences and empty lots surround the simple beige building, its location seems ideal for a major arts district, with easy access to the Metra Electric Line and the Chicago Skyway. In the next few years, the physical space of eta’s stage will become instrumental to carrying out their founding mission–the production of theater by and for the city’s African American population.
While the group’s mission has not waivered since it was founded in 1971, eta’s leadership is currently going through a major transition. The foundation’s long-time president and co-founder, Abena Joan Brown, stepped down this past March, on the 40th anniversary of the opening of the theater. Brown, who was known for her nightly curtain call appearances and charismatic appeals for donations, has been a major force in African American theater and has made important contributions to the development of arts on the South Side. In 1991, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame of the City of Chicago, and under her leadership, the theater has won more than 150 awards.
She passed the reins to Philip Thomas, a charming graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago who has extensive experience in fiscal management. Thomas previously served as the group’s development director, before working for the charitable foundation Chicago Community Trust. According to Nancy McKeever, eta’s board president, “This is the first time new leadership has occurred.” With Thomas’ appointment, other firsts are on the way.
With Thomas guiding the way, eta is branching out in new directions through outreach programs and new partnerships, and is adopting a more accessible aesthetic. This new approach, aimed at attracting a more varied audience, was exemplified by the foundation’s recent production of “Flow.” The play, which closed a week ago after a successful run, connects traditional folktales with hip-hop music. During the production, an on-stage DJ orchestrates the retelling of the stories, attempting to put a modern spin on the classic tales. This is an attempt to cater to the tastes of younger theatergoers, through multimedia, while continuing to appeal to eta’s older stand-by patrons. eta is aiming to broaden their current audience base now so that they will continue to grow in the future. But to accommodate this growth, eta will need to expand.
eta was incorporated as a non-profit in April of 1971. Over the subsequent four decades, the foundation has produced over 180 mainstage productions by African American playwrights. In order to achieve the group’s mission of promoting “the African American aesthetic in the city of Chicago,” the theater has served as a launching pad for original pieces–98 percent of the theater’s productions have been world premieres.
While it has opened the door for local black playwrights, the non-profit’s 40-year history hasn’t been without trials. eta spent many years “vagabonding,” moving their performances from one temporary location to another before settling down in their current space at 7448 S. Chicago. Currently, in addition to the theater hall, the building has a library, community room, and small art gallery dedicated to selling and displaying local art. Their 200-seat theater is intimate and versatile, allowing for a range of performances and kinds of engagement with the audience. But with an ever-growing roster of programs and a house filled with spectators and voices–regulars frequently chime in during well-loved performances–eta has begun to burst at the seams.
When the foundation first moved into its current space, all productions were held in the snug gallery space. But even since the mainstage theater was completed, the foundation’s various programs have had to fight for rehearsal and performance space. While new shows are practicing in the theater, other groups must rehearse alongside them.Â “Every corner is used,” McKeever laughs.
According to McKeever, the foundation’s master plan committee “planned twenty years ahead” for this upcoming expansion. The goal was to maintain eta’s status as a “major cultural resource institution,” and coined the project “Grand Crossing/South Shore: Renaissance 2001” back when it was in preliminary stages.
Recently, physical plans have begun to materialize, and they are ambitious: eta’s facilities are slated to triple in size at a cost of $26 million. McKeever says that eta has acquired most of the money needed for the expansion through fundraising and donations, and that eta now owns the parcels of land they want to build upon. This land, which has been cleared for construction, is across the street from eta’s current building between 75th and 76th. The expansion project will create a fully rendered, all-purpose arts space, complete with a large community room for events, new gallery space, offices, a rehearsal studio, and a much larger auditorium with a thrust stage. The design space will be much more efficient as well, with an on-site construction and costume workshop.
The wheels are turning for the project. “The architectural plans and project management are done,” says McKeever. eta is currently in the middle of remodeling their current space, which must be done before expanding across the street.
However, there is no projected date for the completion of the expansion, and the economic downturn has hit eta in the gut, stalling the final stages of their money drive. Thomas is aware of the tough times facing the theater and arts on the South Side in general. “The community has been hit hard,” he says, “but eta has held its ground and will go up from here. We have to be careful and strategic in planning.” He jokingly described eta’s predicament with what he calls “a UChicago term”–“less income-elastic.” In plain English, eta must be tight-fisted with its cash.
Rather than proceed with the $26 million construction, Thomas’s immediate plan is to continue expanding eta’s programming. The foundation is, first and foremost, a training center–every year, more than 350 students are enrolled in the theater’s professional training program. eta aims to expand this training to off-site locations, thus easing the burden on the foundation’s strained facilities and
elaborating on existing ways to pull in new talent.
One such expansion will rest on a partnership with a University of Chicago Medical Center doctor named Doriane Miller. Miller is a clinical psychologist interested in urban youth violence, particularly on the South Side. She has arranged for the UCMC’s Center for Community Health and Vitality to partner with eta to produce the play “It Shoulda Been Me,” which Miller wrote to bring light to community violence and its effect on teens. According to Miller, “The play is about beginning the journey of healing and resilience and how teachers and family members are a part of that journey.” eta plans to bring this play to CPS students through its Showfolk Daytime Performance Series. After the show, the students will be offered study guides to help them relate the themes of the play to their lives. The hope is that by working with the play, students will be given an additional therapeutic outlet for handling violence in schools and the community.
As another part of their expansion, eta will lay the groundwork for entirely new theater programs. A grant from the Chicago Community Trust will allow the foundation to transfer current performances to Westinghouse College Prep in order to build a new program at the school. Westinghouse has recently built a state-of-the-art theater but has no actual program to speak of. By taking on projects like these, eta’s leadership hopes to generate as much excitement within the community as there is within the foundation itself. The move to a larger space is the natural next step in the process.
eta’s ultimate goal, however, is far more ambitious. Thomas dreams of a cultural district springing up around eta’s current location, complete with new restaurants and businesses geared toward the arts and entertainment. He firmly believes that eta’s stretch of South Chicago Avenue can become a South Side arts corridor, mirroring the Blues District in Bronzeville that was recently brought to life by the mayor’s office. The scope of the envisioned arts corridor makes eta’s physical expansion campaign seem relatively humble, but Thomas and McKeever both insist that ifÂÂ eta is going to remain a world-class cultural institution, then the creation of an arts corridor is a necessity.
“eta is a microcosm of the African-American socioeconomic status,” Thomas says. In his view, an increase in eta’s prosperity will lead to an increase in the general welfare of the local community.
Whether in a massive auditorium or its own small gallery space, eta provides an essential platform for the development of new African American artists in Chicago. As a venue for “home-grown artists,” says Thomas, the foundation “gives voice to a lot of talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.”
Equally important, eta has given many South Side students and residents their first theater experience. “There is a magic that you can feel at eta,” McKeever willfully states. “eta instills a hope in the young people, and at all walks of life.”