Someone viewing a production of “Love’s Labor’s Lost” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater or “The Beard of Avon” at The Goodman Theatre this past season would most likely have joined an audience of mostly white theatergoers. An attendee at “Cut Flowers” at the South Side’s Chicago Theatre Company would enjoy the show alongside mostly black patrons. In much the same way Chicagoans live, worship and go to school, Chicago’s theater scene remains segregated.
“As you go to theaters closer to the South Side, audiences become primarily African American and less white,” observed Steppenwolf Theatre Company casting director Erica Daniels, who attends theaters two or three times a week.
But one North Side theater is taking a bold step to integrate its casts and audiences.
The Second City, a Chicago-based improvisational comedy corporation located at 1616 N. Wells St., plans to open a theater and training center by fall 2004 in Bronzeville, a mostly black, South Side neighborhood known for its African American cultural legacy.
Since the early 1990s, Second City, a launching pad for former “Saturday Night Live” cast members such as John Belushi, Tim Meadows, Mike Myers and Gilda Radner, has contemplated opening a theater venue in a black community. In 2000, it formally announced plans for The Second City Bronzeville Comedy Theatre.
The move, however, has earned mixed reviews.
Some Bronzeville residents and community leaders say that Second City is taking advantage of their work to rebuild Bronzeville, and benefiting from federal funding intended for struggling communities, not successful businesses. And some members of Chicago’s black arts community are wary. They point to the low numbers of African Americans on Second City’s staff and stages, and to the track record of Chicago improvisational comedy being, as one black actress put it, “a white thing.”
“It is a cultural slap in the face and a statement that we lack the capacity to develop that type of venue,” said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, a nonprofit Bronzeville-based organization providing entrepreneurial training to low-income residents. “I don’t think that a European, North [Side], well-established comedy club should come into our community without broad-based support.”
Even one of Second City’s original owners questions the move because the new theater would be aimed at the black community, adding to Chicago’s segregation.
Still, Second City alumni, city officials and others praise the project as a way to showcase African American artists.
“It’s not a white company that’s coming and looking to capitalize on the African American community. It’s about developing African American talent,” said Frances Callier, an African American who began taking classes at Second City as a high school student and led the company’s outreach program in its early years.
In Second City’s more than 40 years, 11 blacks have joined the Chicago theater’s resident companies, permanent ensembles of improvisers who create shows based on sketch comedy. Its first mainstage cast with more than one black performer appeared in 1990, according to Second City producer Kelly Leonard. Currently, the mainstage troupe has one black performer.
Leonard acknowledged that performers still play to mostly white audiences.
“We have been trying programs to get more diversity. Each time it felt like there was a missing link,” said Andrew Alexander, Second City’s chief executive officer and owner. “We decided we needed to get right into the community.”
Leonard said that the Bronzeville theater will not be like one of Second City’s five satellite theaters. The new venue will be half-owned and fully managed by blacks.
Its shows will feature integrated casts with a majority of the performers being black, said Dionna Griffin, the new theater’s producer. She expects the new venue to draw racially mixed crowds.
Half of the new theater’s ownership structure will be comprised of nearly a dozen black producers, actors, directors and instructors who are alumni of Second City’s training center, staff and stages, according to Second City officials. The other half will belong to Second City.
The site for the new theater is an existing building at the northwest corner of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and East 47th Street. The city acquired the building in late March, according to Peter Scales, a spokesman with the city’s planning department.
Black-owned East Lake Management Development Corp. plans to purchase the building from the city and rehab it, said Yorell Groves, senior development manager for East Lake. Second City would lease space in the building for a 150-seat theater, five classrooms, approximately four offices and a bar.
East Lake had been unable to reach an agreement with the building’s previous owner, so the city got involved, Scales said. The city had designated the site, which Scales described as “slum and blighted,” for entertainment purposes.
“It is currently under-utilized retail space,” he said.
Second City is one of the nation’s founders of mainstream improvisational theater, known as improv, which is theater created by actors who work without scripts.
Today, Second City is considered a comedy empire, with a $4.4 million budget and satellite theaters in Toronto, Las Vegas, Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Its shows focus on social and political satire. In recent years, sketches and musical numbers have addressed former President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, reality television and the Grammy Awards. Performers play on a bare stage with only a few hand props.
In all, more than 200,000 people witness performances each year on Second City’s three stages at North and Wells. Performances feature between five and seven cast members.
Conceived by politically active University of Chicago students in the early 1950s, Second City formally opened in December 1959 in a converted laundry. But few blacks performed at Second City during the theater’s first three decades.
Bob Curry became Second City’s first black cast member in 1966. He quit after two shows.
“He felt so pressurized by his community as well as by the theater community to hold up the flag for all blacks all over the world, and he couldn’t do it,” said Second City founder and former artistic director Sheldon Patinkin.
In 1977, Aaron Freeman became the second African American performer to join the theater. “I thought if I messed this up, there would be another 10 to 20 years before another black actor. I always felt that weight,” he said.
Freeman said a director once told him he couldn’t play a white actor’s blood relative because the audience wouldn’t believe the relationship. It was a restriction that limited his artistic freedom, he said.
Improvisers play different characters from scene to scene. Actors might go from being brother and sister to teacher and student to spectators at a football game.
“The definitive question in a scene wasn’t my talent, but what was appropriate to my skin color,” Freeman said. “It was a distinction that was made. That hurt.
“I accepted it because I wanted to be in Second City,” he said.
The next black performers at Second City were Judith Scott and Tim Meadows, who both joined in 1989.
Second City’s Alexander said the limitations of an all-white cast became obvious to him in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots when performers struggled to effectively satirize the racially charged events.
“At that point I thought to myself, –˜We’ve got to change,'” said Alexander, who then started an outreach program for minority performers and communities.
The program now offers yearly auditions and free summer intensives for actors of color, scholarships for minority students at The Second City Training Center, and improv workshops at black high schools and universities. Callier said Second City workshops have spawned African American, Latino, Asian American, and gay and lesbian improv groups.
Despite the changes, black improvisers and writers at Second City still struggle with issues of identity during performances and rehearsals, and a cultural gap they say exists between what blacks think is funny about themselves and what other racial groups consider funny about blacks.
“When you step on stage at Second City, one of the things you do have to know is popular culture, and popular culture is white culture,” said Callier. “It’s difficult to get something out that really pertains to you or has your voice or perspective when nobody else really knows what you’re talking about.”
“In many ways you have to whitewash yourself to be able to even get on stage,” she said.
Ronnel Taylor, a black actor from Chicago who has taken improv classes at Second City, said he has felt stereotyped when performing with white improvisers.
“When I’m on stage with a white actor, their first idea is –˜What’s up, homeboy?’ or –˜You’re in jail and I’m the police officer,’ or they call me –˜Malcolm X,'” said Taylor. “They already typecast me as a black person. If I have my hair in an Afro, that makes it even worse.”
At a Second City show last year, the Nommo Gathering Black Writers Collective, the only ensemble of black writers to go through Second City’s training program, watched white actors perform a parody of the drug culture, said Stephanie Shakur, the group’s executive director.
“One woman was holding up an infant, giving it a bottle. Another walked up, with the stereotypical black cadence, and said, –˜Girl, what’s wrong wit’ you?’ The other woman pointed at the baby and said, –˜Girl, she pregnant!'” said Shakur.
The mostly white audience hollered with laughter, she said, but a dozen or so blacks from the Nommo Gathering sat in stunned silence.
Second City’s entrance into Bronzeville is primarily a business move, according to Shakur, former executive director of the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, an interdisciplinary coalition of black theatres, dance troupes and other arts groups.
“This is about money,” she said. “Second City or any other historically white –¦ male arts organization realized a long time ago that they can find gold in the black consumer market.
Chicago’s improv scene lacks diversity, according to Charna Halpern, the founder and artistic director of Improv Olympic, a 22-year-old improv theater located in Wrigleyville on the North Side.
“Improv is something that white males seem to do more than anyone,” she said. “Recently I noticed some African Americans at my show, and I thought to myself, –˜They all look like cool, young, hip people, why aren’t they involved?'”
About 1,650 people are currently enrolled in Improv Olympic’s training center, but only a dozen of them are black, according to Jason Chin, the center’s director.
Shaun Landry, a former member of Second City’s touring company, said Chicagoans see improv as a “white thing” because of its local history. But she said black performers and audiences will appreciate improv once they’re exposed to it.
In 1993, Landry founded a sketch comedy improv theater company, “Oui Be Negroes,” because she wanted to work with other blacks on shows based on black political and social issues.
“When I perform for black audiences the laughter becomes louder,” said Landry. “Because of the recognition –¦ the audience talks back to us, [and] we talk back to them.”
David Barr, a black playwright and associate artistic director at Chicago Theatre Company, said most African American performers have not been doing Second City-style improv because they’ve been trying so hard to get on mainstream stages like the Steppenwolf and The Shubert Theatre.
Aside from Wayne Brady and a few actors on the television comedy “MAD TV,” Barr said few blacks are doing that brand of comedy.
Still, blacks have a long tradition of artistic improvisation, dating back to the early days of jazz and vaudeville, said Barr.
Nyima Funk, a black actress and current cast member on Second City’s e.t.c. stage, said she started out in musical theater at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the mid-1990s and had difficulty finding parts to play.
“Doing improv, I could finally write my own material,” she said. “I didn’t have to play a maid or old southern mammy unless I wanted to.”
But many Bronzeville residents have not been exposed to Second City.
While visiting a neighborhood beauty salon, Griffin told patrons she was from Second City and a woman replied “Second who?” Griffin recalled.
Griffin also spoke with Vincent Hunter, a program coordinator at a Bronzeville youth center. He was surprised Griffin, a black and Latina, was from Second City.
“Because of the location, I thought Second City was pretty much a white theater,” said Hunter, who has attended the Black Ensemble Theater and The New Regal Theater, which cater to mostly black audiences.
“There’s this assumption that Second City’s going to come, be built, and six white guys in ties are going to show up on stage,” said Callier.
But Second City officials say the Bronzeville theater will not duplicate the North Side shows. “We want to incorporate music, dance, poetry and monologues. We have an attraction to embracing different art forms in our shows,” said Leonard, Second City’s producer.
Callier called Second City the perfect venue for people of color because audience input drives the improvisation. For example, if the topic suggestion for a scene is President George W. Bush, Callier said, an all-black audience may want the actors to satirize his views on affirmative action, a request that might not come from an all-white audience.
The new venue “will represent its audience and its neighborhood,” she said.
But Bernard Sahlins, a former Second City producer and one of its original owners, called that approach “dead wrong.”
“It was a hard-won struggle to diversify the company. To go back to segregating the company and narrowing the appeal is a mistake,” he said.
During the early- to mid-20th century, Bronzeville became the center of African American cultural, business and political life in Chicago as thousands of blacks migrated there from the South.
But decades of economic disinvestment and social change following World War II diminished Bronzeville’s appeal as businesses closed, and residents moved farther south, according to the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, a Bronzeville-based community development organization.
However, Bronzeville is changing.
In November 2000, The Chicago Reporter found that low-income residents were getting squeezed out by public housing teardowns and the construction of new homes, condos and apartments.
Alderman Dorothy Tillman, whose 3rd Ward includes much of Bronzeville, has pushed the development of new arts institutions as a part of the revitalization.
“We’re very proud to have Second City as an anchor on that corner because it’s the first time that they have located in the African American community. It’s a destination point that would help the community grow,” Tillman said.
The intersection of East 47th Street and South King Drive is also slated to be home to the Harold Washington Cultural Center, a theater under development for 10 years that has yet to open due mainly to budget woes. Critics have blamed Tillman for the delays, saying she has not managed the project efficiently.
In March 2000, The Chicago Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Community Coordinating Council awarded Second City $850,118 for the Bronzeville theater. The Empowerment Zone (EZ) is a federal program that seeks to revitalize distressed neighborhoods.
Chicago was awarded $100 million in 1994 for its Empowerment Zone, which included parts of the city’s West, near Southwest and South sides, where nearly 200,000 mostly poor residents lived.
In Second City’s EZ proposal, which Callier wrote and submitted in September 1999, the company promised to employ 30 empowerment zone residents in various positions including box office staff, wait staff and group sales.
However, some community members oppose Second City’s EZ award and its move to Bronzeville. They call Second City a “foreign” institution.
“We don’t need Second City to save us economically or culturally,” said Lucas of Black Metropolis.
Second City is “walking into a ready-made market,” he said. “Groups have been working for 20 years to preserve the authentic heritage of the community.”
Gerri’s Palm Tavern, one of the oldest black-owned establishments in the city and once a part of the vibrant 47th Street commercial district, also applied for Empowerment Zone funding in 1999 to renovate its building, according to Karen Bozeman-Gross, executive director of the South Side Empowerment Zone Cluster, a non-governmental organization that monitors proposals for the area that includes Bronzeville.
Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and other notable black entertainers had visited the club since the mid-1930s.
But the Palm Tavern’s request was denied. Bozeman-Gross said there were concerns about the building’s condition, and the city wanted the property.
The city closed the Palm Tavern in July 2001.
Few entertainment venues sought EZ funding in 1999 for projects in Bronzeville. But Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, which performs African and African American dance, music and folklore, and Little Black Pearl Workshop, which trains inner-city youth in the arts and business, received grants to build on 47th Street a few blocks east of the Second City theater site.
Lucas noted that these organizations are nonprofits, unlike Second City.
Monica Haslip, executive director of Little Black Pearl, said Second City’s reputation ensures that it will be an asset to Bronzeville.
But the purpose of the EZ program is to empower groups in areas like Bronzeville who are trying to redevelop and stabilize their communities, said Haslip. “I do understand the [opposition] of people from the community.”
Haslip said there are a number of struggling Bronzeville organizations who lack the technical support to access Empowerment Zone funds.
“This is a gross misuse of funds,” added Nathan Thompson, a black author and activist. “Robert Townsend –¦ and Bernie Mac –¦ are the attractions that should be coming to Bronzeville, not Second City.”
But Tillman argued that any business relocating to an Empowerment Zone should be eligible. “I don’t think that when President Clinton released the Empowerment Zone, they put a color on it,” she said.
Kenny Sawyer, who ran for alderman against Tillman in February, agreed.
“African Americans need to stop this foolishness,” he said. “We have to be honest about economic realities. Has Bernie Mac or Robert Townsend –¦ tried to open a club? Second City is taking a risk.”
Still, Sawyer said, Second City should involve African Americans in the process.
Raynard Hall, who was born and raised in Bronzeville and now lives in the South Side Chatham neighborhood, sees nothing wrong with Second City coming to Bronzeville, if they “do the right thing” by learning about–”and accurately reflecting–”African American culture.
“If they show some awareness or sensitivity to that, then I’m all for it,” he said. “To make this cultural district idea work, it’s going to take a diversity of interests, –¦ and the more attractions that will bring audiences into the area, the better.”
Contributing: Kristin Gagnon. Shawn Allee and Laura Thatcher helped research this article.