If you ask Kemati Porter, the executive director of eta Creative Arts Foundation, about the future of her theater, she will first tell you about its past. It’s the only answer that makes sense. How could anyone understand what eta needs to be right now if they don’t know that Maya Angelou used to line-dance in its back room?
Porter has been part of eta off and on for almost forty years, and has been at the helm for a difficult period in the foundation’s history: in the fall of 2014, its home of almost thirty years failed to meet building codes and then caught fire. The recovery period has been long and arduous.
But if anything, these recent troubles made it clearer than ever how much eta’s rich past matters to its community at large. Porter says that the community banded together to help them rebuild.
“When we had to move a couple of our productions out and take them over to Kennedy-King, our constituents told us, ‘We’re going to go,’” she said. “‘We’re going to be there. But we’re very unhappy. Please let us know when we can come home….When are we going to be back in our theater?’ Everything is ‘our.’ And now we’re home.” Eta has been “the place, the cultural hub,” in its community for generations, and Porter says the community has “made it clear to us that we must be here. It is important to their holistic existence as a community that they have art that reflects who they are.”
Even disregarding all of the problems eta has had recently with its physical space, the foundation is in what Porter calls “a transformation period.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the community is in transformation, and that eta is trying to figure out how to change along with it.
“People ask, ‘What’s eta going to do differently?’ ” says Porter, “I’m not sure if that’s the question you want to ask. What’s eta going to continue to provide to this community?”
Many of eta’s patrons have been involved with the foundation since its early days, and the foundation must continue to serve them. Part of that task is continuing to give them, and also their children and grandchildren, art that speaks to “where they’ve been and where they’re going.” Porter is trying to figure out how to do all of that at the same time: “What does it mean to be a cultural arts institution going forward?” she asks. “It’s about connecting generations to generations….How do we figure out the bridge that connects to the next generation and puts this in their hands?”
As part of this project, Porter has been looking for three years to start staging full-scale productions in collaboration with young, vagabond theaters. (Last year, eta collaborated with younger companies as part of its Magic Box series, but it has never before brought another company into its space for a full-scale production.) This finally came to fruition this year, when Porter brought in the two-year-old Pulse Theater Company to stage The Colored Museum. Pulse’s artistic director and cofounder, Aaron Mitchell Reese, is twenty-six years old. He often digresses from conversation to talk excitedly about his ideas for new shows. In Reese (who also has served as an assistant director and dramaturge for past eta productions), Porter felt that she had found a young director whose values and ambitions aligned properly with eta’s own. She says that in order to work at eta, one would need to understand “how important it is for our community to see themselves onstage.”
Reese graduated from Columbia College Chicago a few years ago, and his experience as one of the only black men in his class helped convince him that theater needs to change. He felt pressure during school to “direct the Black play,” usually a “lionized classic” like A Raisin in the Sun, and this felt incredibly constricting because, as he says, “we are so much more than that.” So he founded Pulse to give him the freedom to innovate as a storyteller and to “try to break the archetypes of traditional theater.” Doing this in a place with as long and storied a following as eta seemed an especially powerful opportunity to break with tradition.
“Coming from a twenty-six-year-old, theater’s going to be something different,” Reese said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought of it that way.’” The Colored Museum, whose run at eta ended on October 23, was written thirty years ago, but under the deft direction of both Reese and Donterrio Johnson, it still shocks.
Reese’s refusal to accept the familiar representations available to Black America is at the center of The Colored Museum. As an audience member, you may laugh and sing and clap and cry, but you are not allowed to feel comfortable. The play opens with a flight attendant, Miss Pat, welcoming the audience aboard the “celebrity slave ship.” A sign flashes above the set: “Fasten Shackles.” Minutes later, when drums begin to sound backstage, she loses her temper and interrupts her speech, telling us to repeat after her: “I don’t hear any drums, and I will not rebel!”
A couple people in the audience chuckle. But she doesn’t let us remain removed spectators, and begins to scream: “REPEAT AFTER ME! I DON’T HEAR ANY DRUMS, AND I WILL NOT REBEL!” This time, most of the audience uneasily obeyed. By the time she leaves the stage, the viewer is aware that this play will make you engage in ways ways that are entirely new and even a bit scary.
That is the first of the eleven satirical vignettes that make up the play. Moving rapidly from target to target, it’s driven by the sense that existing representations of Black America are completely inadequate to Black America’s complexity, but also by the idea that by pushing and pulling at these stale icons, one might be able to get at the truth they conceal. This mission is most powerfully (and hilariously) achieved in a parody of A Raisin in the Sun, which mocks stuffy, politically inert depictions of abjection and middle-class aspiration in tenement housing. The protagonist of this play-within-a-play is Walter-Lee-Beau-Willy Jones. Lips trembling, vowels stretched to impossible lengths, he raves at “the Man” and at his mother. When he is interrupted by his wife’s refusal to make dinner, he drops their two children out of the window. His wife throws herself onto the ground, sobbing. The “director” then runs onstage, clapping manically, and hands the wife an Emmy.
After Walter-Lee-Beau-Willy is killed by a stray bullet, the suffering becomes “too much to bear” and the actors switch from melodrama to an all-Black musical (the other officially sanctioned genre of Black theater). The singing is fantastic. That’s one of the key reasons this production works so well. While it beats its message into you, the spectacularly funny jokes and enchanting music ward off any didactic tone. It keeps the audience engaged in a very complicated way. You begin to get carried away by the musical number, and then you remember that the actors are mocking the way musicals sanitize Black experience. You feel uneasy about your pleasure, even as you continue to feel it. The play flickers continually between joy and sadness and anger, and the result is both exhilarating and disturbing.
There is only one vignette in The Colored Museum where the pathos is not tempered by Black comedy, and it haunts all of the fun that follows it. A soldier (played by Jelani West, in a performance so compelling that you hold your breath) walks to the very edge of the stage, points his finger into the audience, and bellows, “I know the secret to your pain.” He proceeds to tell the viscerally disturbing story of his death on the battlefield, and of how he came back to life and killed his squad to put them out of their misery. The Colored Museum makes this soldier the unexpected emblem of Black suffering. When he’s finished with the story, he returns to the edge of the stage. “I know the secret to your pain,” he says. “To yours, and yours, and yours.” Part of the point is that this link between “you” and the soldier should not feel as unexpected as it does. War is as common an aspect of African-American experience as any of Black theater’s tropes, and given that Black suffering forged America, it’s all too appropriate to emblematize Black pain with an all-American icon. Nevertheless, West is making a demand of the audience: you will identify with what is happening on this stage, only not in the ways that you are used to. You may have never been to war, but this soldier’s suffering—raw and confusing and deeply, painfully American—will stand for your own.
If, as Kemati Porter says, a community needs to have art that “reflects who they are,” The Colored Museum expresses the difficulty of providing this, for every representation is bound to fall short of that community’s infinite complexity. But this play is also full of hope. It proclaims that by refusing to become unsurprising, art might at least make us feel the force of that complexity, and of all the joy and sadness that it is made from.
Going forward, Reese hopes to keep staging new, exciting collaborations with eta on a regular basis. His ambitions are very much tied to the dramatic tradition eta helped to create: “We want to continue the legacy of Chicago theater, which is experiment and play.”