Early African-American theater in Chicago

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in January 2011.

Walking through downtown Chicago one day in 1882, lawyer Jarvis Blume spotted a shoeshine boy performing Shakespeare scenes for a small crowd of bootblacks and newsboys. Blume was amazed — especially because this 12-year-old thespian was black. He could hardly believe that this kid in tattered clothes from Tennessee, whose race had been enslaved a mere 20 years earlier, was capable of appreciating the English language’s most renowned playwright.

Later, Blume brought some of his fellow lawyers to witness this marvel. “What shall I recite?” asked the boy, Charles Winter Wood.

“The ghost scene from Macbeth, if you know it,” one of the lawyers said, thinking it would be amusing to watch a black boy with grime and boot polish on his face trying to turn pale from fright. To the astonishment of the attorneys, Wood performed the scene perfectly. According to Blume, “The negro actually did pale under the strength of his emotions.”

Taken with Wood’s talent, Blume and his colleagues enrolled him in a school of oratory. By the time he was 16, Wood had performed in Othello and Richard III at two of Chicago’s most prominent playhouses, the Madison Street Theatre and Freiberg’s Opera House. But Wood, who went on to a long career as an educator and actor, was a true rarity in those times. It would be many decades before African-Americans achieved anything close to equality in the world of theater. From the Emancipation Proclamation up through the civil rights movement a century later, blacks fought to find a place in theaters run by whites. And they struggled to win roles that went beyond offensive caricature. Chicago was one city where blacks forged a theater of their own.

In the late 1800s, most of the black faces seen in Chicago theaters actually belonged to white performers in minstrel shows, their faces darkened their skin with burnt cork. But it wasn’t just white performers who played these offensive roles. Blacks performed in minstrel shows, too, darkening their faces with the same sort of makeup. As historian Leah Kathleen Cothern has written, the “use of blackface and imitated dialect was, for most African-American artists of this time, the only way to participate in vaudeville and musical comedy.”

“The minstrel show was an opportunity for African-Americans to perform,” says Jackie Taylor, artistic producer of the Black Ensemble Theater. “There were many people in the black community who hated it. And then there were many people in the community who saw it for entertainment and nothing more, and they loved it.” When the Hyer Sisters performed in Chicago in 1889, the Chicago Inter Ocean praised the black group for telling “a story of the soul” that was “positive relief from the hackneyed rubbish of the bogus, cork-grimed variety man.” And yet, the same critic revealed some prejudice, adding that the Hyer Sisters possessed “that rollicking joyousness which bubbles over in the darky nature.”

Two of the period’s most popular black performers, Bert Williams and George Walker, honed their comedy-and-dance act in Chicago. In 1902, they had a national hit with In Dahomey, a show partly inspired by African music played in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Williams and Walker were a smash with both whites and blacks, but some black critics accused them of pandering. Albert Ross, a black business professor, attacked them for using “the old plantation Negro, the ludicrous darkey, and the scheming grafter … to entertain people.” Variety published a response from Williams and Walker, who said black entertainers were “entirely dependent on white audiences and critics for their livelihood” and “had to keep in mind the expectations of those audiences.”

In 1901, a group of black businessmen published an announcement, calling for the creation of “a colored theatre in Chicago, controlled by colored people and catering only to colored patronage.” Their dream became a reality in 1904, when Robert Mott, an African-American who’d made his fortune in the gambling business, opened the Pekin Theatre at 27th and State streets. A magnet for the black stars of the period and immensely popular with black audiences from all over, it was, as historian Henry T. Sampson has written, “a place to see and at which to be seen.” After attending the Pekin in 1906, actor Sherman H. Dudley remarked, “I have never felt so proud of being a colored man. … The entertainment was a revolution and shows just what Negroes can and must do in the near future.”

In its heyday, the Pekin and its stock company nurtured many of the early 20th century’s most prominent African-American entertainers, and its house band, Joe Jordan and His Pekin Orchestra, helped to popularize jazz. Two of the Pekin’s vaudeville stars, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, turned their comedic routines into Shuffle Along, a hit 1921 musical with songs by Eubie Blake, including one that’s still familiar today: “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”

The Pekin’s success spawned other theaters in Chicago’s Bronzeville, such as the Regal and the Savoy, which featured movies as well as concerts and variety shows. The next boost for African-American theater came from the Federal Theatre Project during the Great Depression. This government initiative helped a group of black performers to create a jazzy, tropical variation on Gilbert & Sullivan called The Swing Mikado, which took audiences by storm at the Great Northern in 1938.

“The Federal Theatre of the depression period was more than a gift from Roosevelt. It seemed like a gift from God,” poet Langston Hughes later wrote in the Chicago Defender. “The Federal Theatre broke down not only the old taboos against colored American as backstage technicians, but the bars against colored actors playing other than racial roles.”

In spite of these advances, few African-American playwrights in the early 20th century had success with dramas dealing with serious issues. Chicagoan Theodore Ward, however — who wrote plays while he made a living by inspecting motors at a factory and shining shoes — attracted notice for his 1938 drama Big White Fog, about a South Side man who believes American blacks should move to Africa. And in 1941, novelist Richard Wright and playwright Paul Green adapted for the stage Wright’s Native Son,  about a Chicago black man on trial for murdering a white woman.

Starting in the 1950s, new theatrical groups formed in Chicago’s black neighborhoods, forerunners of the companies that specialize today in plays about the black experience, such as Black Ensemble Theatre, Congo Square Theatre and MPAACT Afrikan Centered Theatre. But in 1956, a young African-American woman who’d grown up on the South Side was disappointed at what she saw in Chicago’s theaters. “One night, after seeing a play I won’t mention,” Lorraine Hansberry said,  “I suddenly became disgusted with a whole body of material about Negroes. Cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or hip-swinging musicals from exotic sources.”

Hansberry channeled her disgust into a script about her experiences as a child, when her family moved into a white neighborhood and was attacked by brick-wielding mobs. “Potential backers read my play and cried: ‘It’s beautiful! Too bad it isn’t a musical. White audiences aren’t interested in a Negro play,’” Hansberry later recalled.

But she did find backing for her script, and A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and becoming a film in 1961, winning wide acclaim and audiences of all colors. The struggle by blacks for a place in the theater was far from over (some would argue that it still isn’t over), but Chicago’s African-Americans had come a long way from the days of minstrel shows.