UPTOWN — A $5 million grant from one of the world’s richest women has given Black Ensemble Theater a lifeline as it seeks to re-establish after the pandemic and work toward long-held goals.
The Uptown playhouse and performance company learned in June it would receive a $5 million grant from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.
The grant was among $2.74 billion Scott gave away in June, with other local recipients including City Colleges of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.
Jackie Taylor, founder of the Black Ensemble Theater at 4450 N. Clark St, said she got a call this spring from a person who said their client was interested in donating. After answering the person’s questions, Taylor learned two weeks later her theater would get a $5 million no-strings-attached grant from Scott.
The gift is the largest in the 46-year history of Black Ensemble Theater, and it couldn’t come at a more critical time for the organization, Taylor said.
“I wasn’t prepared for that,” Taylor saidt. “I didn’t believe it. We need these funds for Black Ensemble Theater to move forward.”
The grant comes as the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the theater and live performance sector in Chicago. Black Ensemble Theater has lost $3 million in revenue during the pandemic; though it has plans to open in the fall, losses continue to mount, Taylor said.
The grant is being used to pay expenses incurred during the pandemic and to prepare for a return to the stage, Taylor said.
“In regular times, the impact of this gift would mean something totally different than it does now,” Taylor said.
Scott’s gift comes at critical time for the theater, which is not only seeking to come out from under the pandemic but also work toward one of Taylor’s long-held dreams: the Free To Be cultural corridor near the Black Ensemble Theater.
Recently, the organization took a big step in getting the project off the ground: It partnered with MCZ Development on a building that will house an artist live-work and gallery space, Taylor said.
MCZ Development has been redeveloping the former Uptown Fitness building at 4410 N. Clark St. into a four-story structure. Black Ensemble has been brought into the development plan and will use the to-be-built complex to further its cultural corridor goals.
MCZ’s plans for the site call for 25 units on its upper floors and commercial space on the ground floor.
Taylor said the scope of the project will largely remain the same, though the building’s mission will change. At least some of the housing will be earmarked for artists, and there could be office space. The first floor would host a gallery or exhibit space, she said.
Work on the building is underway and could be completed in a year, Taylor said.
The building project helps achieve one of the missions of the Free To Be cultural corridor. Taylor also wants the corridor to have public art, Black-owned businesses and an education center.
Taylor founded Black Ensemble Theater in 1976 with a mission to eradicate racism “one performance at a time” and “one student at a time,” according to its website.
Through the years, people have told Taylor her mission was too lofty. But the movement on the cultural corridor, and with the backing of the world’s most prolific philanthropist, there’s more momentum to meet that mission than ever before, she said.
“People tried to get [our mission] changed, said it would never happen,” Taylor said. “Forty-six years later, we have the richest woman in the world supporting our efforts. That means a great deal.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.