In July 2022, scholar, artist, and educator Gabrielle Randle-Bent was appointed as associate artistic director at the University of Chicago’s Court Theatre. The thirty-something Arlington, Texas native is the first female and African-American woman to hold the title.
The role of associate artistic director “is a very specific type of position because we were looking for someone who is both a brilliant artist and a brilliant scholar,” said Executive Director Angel Ysaguirre. “So, we were looking for a very different type of person. We wanted someone who could thrive at the university as a scholar and thrive within the theater community as an artist and who also was very sensitive to how a theater engages community members.”
Randle-Bent holds a BA in Drama & Sociology from Stanford University, an MA in Performance as Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin and is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. She is also a senior lecturer in the Theater and Performance Studies program at the University of Chicago.
“The theater is led by two people,” said Ysaguirre. “So, it’s led by me on the administrative and strategic side and then led by Charlie Newell on the artistic side. And while Gabby’s position is in the arts…a lot of what she does also overlaps with strategy and administration. So, we’re going through strategic planning process right now at the theater and one of the things that we’re really deeply considering is how does Court Theatre’s work integrate more meaningfully into the curriculum of the university.”
Randle-Bent is no stranger to Court Theatre. Her career with the Tony Award-winning theater began in 2019 when she served as the inaugural Court Theatre Research Fellow. One of Randle-Bent’s responsibilities during her fellowship was to serve as dramaturg for Court’s productions of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Oedipus Rex and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
So, what is a dramaturg? To put it simply, “a playwright and a director are like an architect team,” Randle-Bent said. “They imagine something amazing, stunning…something that no one has ever done before. And a dramaturg, in a lot of ways, is like a structural engineer. They come in and they say, ‘this wall needs to be load bearing. Or, I noticed this house is two stories but it doesn’t have stairs.’”
In addition to being a dramaturg during her fellowship year, Randle-Bent also co-founded the Civic Actor’s Studio, a leadership program of the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement.
But Randle-Bent admits that theater was not an initial interest of hers growing up.
“In high school, I was very much like [an] athlete and I took AP math and science courses,” she said. “That really was like in terms of what I felt like what I was choosing for myself.. like defined me. I thought I wanted to be an engineer. Well, I wanted to be an engineer and like in just sort of haphazard ways.”
Perhaps due in part to the influence of her middle school friends who were involved in theater or her own experience as a young theater goer, Randle-Bent’s passion for the theater soon began to blossom.
“I was obsessed with Annie and the Lion King,” Randle-Bent said. “And for my thirteenth birthday, my parents took me to New York and we got half priced seats to see Aida and Toni Braxton happened to be in it at the time. I was on row 8A and I was so close I could see the microphones. I could see the wings and I could see the light grid. It was magical.”
High school and college years brought more opportunities for Randle-Bent to experience that theatrical “magic”—only this time, firsthand. Before long, she was directing her high school spring musical and by college, she was taking on roles such as stage manager for a Winter One Acts production after seeing an ad in the bathroom of her college dormitory. One theatrical leadership role led into yet another.
“I just started spending more time in the theater department than I did anywhere else,” said Randle-Bent. “And I just have always felt at home…and just never felt more at home than when I’m in a dark theater. Sitting looking up at the stage. So, yeah, in a lot of ways, it chose me.”
As Court’s associate artistic director, Randle-Bent’s has already begun to apply her vast amount of expertise in her new role with an emphasis on new play development and community engagement.
“The thing that she’s really leading is our new play development process,” said Ysaguirre. “Gabby also brings an incredible level of sensitivity to how the work that we do impacts communities and how we might be in relationships with communities so that we’re responding to what they want as much as we’re offering them something that we think we have to offer. So, to be in a true two-way relationship.”
With her new appointment, Randle-Bent also made her solo directorial debut with the November 11 opening of The Island.
The play, written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, centers around a pair of political prisoners on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island, who spend their days toiling mindlessly while secretly rehearsing a two-man version of Sophocles’s Antigone at night.
Randle-Bent’s challenge as director was to bring the playwright’s words and vision to life for the audience in the most meaningful ways while maintaining a high level of care around arguably controversial topics such as incarceration, apartheid and racism.
“What was thrilling about this play was with the text, like literally with the words,” Randle-Bent said. “We had this blank canvas where we could use the words and also the original process. So, not make a play that was built on the foundations of apartheid-era South Africa…but a play that was really grounded in that history that helped us think through questions of things we’re struggling with in this moment.”
“As a Texan, I am painfully aware [that] I won’t be a Chicagoan, maybe ever,” said Randle-Bent. “But what that means to learn to love this place and to do that in this role—and also get to learn—I feel like, is just unreal. I feel so lucky.” The Island runs through December 4. Court’s remaining season will include the play Fen, which opens in February of 2023. For more information about Court Theatre, The Island and upcoming plays, visit www.courttheatre.org.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. Her last piece for the Weekly featured Natalie O. Osbourne.