Q&A: Black Ensemble Theater Founder Jackie Taylor

Jackie Taylor, executive director of the Black Ensemble Theater, poses for a portrait at the Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, July 8, 2009. Earlier in life, Taylor was the recipient of public housing. (Chicago Tribune photo by Mike Burley)  ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT.. 00308578B PublicHousingTaylor ORG XMIT: 00308578B PublicHousingTaylor ..OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS,  NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT..

Jackie Taylor, executive director of the Black Ensemble Theater.

Born in Chicago, IL and raised in the Cabrini Green housing project, Jackie Taylor rose from modest roots to become a distinguished director, producer, actress, singer, and playwright. As the founder of the 39 year old Black Ensemble Theater (BE), she has created a strong institution committed to eradicating racism. BE is recognized throughout the nation for its outstanding original productions and exceptional educational outreach programs.

Jackie Taylor has written and produced more than 100 plays and musical biographies, including The Marvin Gaye Story, The Jackie Wilson StoryI Am Who I Am (The Story of Teddy Pendergrass), Don’t Make Me Over (The Story of Dionne Warwick), Don’t Shed A Tear (The Billie Holiday Story), and Somebody Say Amen, At Last:  A Tribute To Etta James. A phenomenal actress and performer in her own right, Taylor has had featured roles in several major films, including Cooley High, Hoodlum, Barbershop 2, The Father Clements Story, Losing Isiah and To Sir With Love: Part 2Ms. Taylor also has numerous television and theater credits to her name, and has worked with such greats as Sidney Poitier, Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Williams, Bill Dukes, Glynn Thurman, and Lawrence Hilton Jacobs.  

In September 2010, Ms. Taylor broke ground on the new $20 million Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, which opened on November 18, 2011. Currently, her theater is running The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert)

SoulTrain.com: What was life like for you growing up in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project?

Jackie Taylor:  It was home. There were some wonderful things about growing up there—the closeness of the community, a whole lot of kids to play with. And there were difficult things to contend with like violence.

SoulTrain.com: You became friends with Eric Monte, creator of the TV shows Good Times, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening!, and the movie Cooley High, which you were in. When did you know that you wanted to be in the entertainment business? 

Jackie Taylor: I did not know Eric when he lived in Cabrini. He lived in the row houses and I lived in the tall red projects. He is a different generation than me. I met Eric when I was making Cooley High. I always knew that I wanted to be in the entertainment business.  

SoulTrain.com: When did you decide to create the Black Ensemble Theater (BE)?   

Jackie Taylor: I have always been involved in theater, from my early days with Mr. Houston, the drama teacher at Seward Park in Cabrini, to the day I graduated from Loyola University with a BA in theater.  After filming Cooley High I decided to start a theater. I thought the roles in film were going to all be positive and have a positive message. I was young and very naive. This was the “blaxploitation” era and the roles for African Americans were degrading and an insult to our intelligence as human beings. Those films glorified guns, drugs, and violence. I wanted no part of those images, so I decided to start a theater that would exploit the greatness and positivity of who we are as African Americans.  

SoulTrain.com: Racism is very strong in the U.S., specifically Chicago. One of your missions is to eradicate it through stage productions at your theater.  What do you think about all of the violence being committed on African Americans from law enforcement?

 Jackie Taylor: Racism is not dead. It is alive and well in this country. Blacks are still very much the victims in this racist society and racism permeates every aspect of our lives. That is obvious through the murders that have been inflicted upon us as a race and through the Black on Black crime that has infiltrated our neighborhoods. We work toward our mission through our productions, as well as our educational outreach programs. 

 SoulTrain.com: Besides being in the entertainment business, you also have a master’s degree in education, and have taught at numerous institutions.  How have you infused your teaching skills into your life? 

Jackie Taylor: I have developed several very successful educational outreach programs— Strengthening the School Through Theater Arts, Plays With A Purpose, Theater for Challenged Men and Women, and New Directions, a theater program for wards of the state.   

SoulTrain.com: As a director and producer, you have quite a lot of responsibility in presenting the production in its proper light.  Is there any particular method that you use when approaching a new project? 

Jackie Taylor: Be clear, concise, direct, and fair, and work out your cast.     

SoulTrain.com:  Are all of the productions at BE original plays, or do you produce other playwrights at your theater?

Jackie Taylor: Yes, all of the productions at Black Ensemble are original and they are all written by the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI), a program of the Black Ensemble Theater. The purpose of the BPI is threefold—to bring attention to Chicago’s African American playwrights community, to help strengthen the pool of Chicago playwrights by providing year-round classes, workshops and resources, and to provide a continuum of scripts for the Black Ensemble Theater. 

SoulTrain.com:  Are there any up and coming playwrights you are familiar with who have great talent?

Jackie Taylor:  Wendell Etherly, Ervin Gardner, Rueben D. Echoles, Daryl Brooks, and Lydia Diamond. 

SoulTrain.com: Are there any well-known playwrights that you would like to work with?

Jackie Taylor: I love working with the BPI.

SoulTrain.com: Many of your past productions have either been musical biographies about legendary blacks in the entertainment industry, or ethnic versions of well known stories. How do you choose your productions? 

Jackie Taylor: I choose the stories based on what the audience says they want to see, and what will make money.

SoulTrain.com:  Currently, your theater is running The BlackWhite Love Play (The Story of Chaz and Roger Ebert). What is the play about and why did you choose it?

Jackie Taylor: It is the love story of Chaz and Roger Ebert, the film critic. I chose it because with Roger being white and Chaz being black, it speaks directly to our mission. 

SoulTrain.com: Roger Ebert, I hear, was quite a guy. Did you know him personally?  

Jackie Taylor: Yes, I knew him. He loved coming to the Black Ensemble Theater. I would describe him as highly intelligent, loving, caring and secure in himself and his life.  

SoulTrain.com:  What is in the future, creatively, for Jackie Taylor?

Jackie Taylor:  Continuing to do what I do: Write, act, direct, produce, sing, play my guitar and teach. 

SoulTrain.com:  Does BE participate in any outside creative programs? 

Jackie Taylor: We are always involved in a learning process. It is my belief that we can never stop learning and that we have to expose ourselves to other creative voices, so we participate in many different workshops, showcases, etc. 

SoulTrain.com:   Is there anything that you haven’t done, that is on your “bucket list?”

Jackie Taylor: I don’t have a bucket list. However, I want to start producing the songs that I’ve written at a national level.  

SoulTrain.com:  What words of advice would you give to a playwright/producer/director interested in opening a theater? 

Jackie Taylor: Talk with as many successful business owners as possible. Try to learn and understand what has made them successful. Learn your craft, understand that you are running a business and learn every aspect of that business, especially the many financial aspects of the business. In theater, you cannot just be creative; you have to know and understand all aspects of running a business, staffing, financial management, marketing, promotion, development, planning and operations.

You can follow Jackie Taylor on Facebook or log onto Black Ensemble Theater’s website.

—Pierre A. Evans

Pierre A. Evans is a writer for Soultrain.comNdigo.comEmpireRadioMagazine.comUrbanMuseMag.comTheSOUL etter.com, a singer/songwriter, actor, model, poet, and DJ. He is the owner of Pinnacle Entertainment Productions Follow him on FacebookTwitter, and on Instagram.

One Comment

  1. This was an excellent article.

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