Ellen Hao

Turning the Spotlight Toward Engagement

A new three-year grant is helping the Court in its continued efforts for diversification

On a Monday night in February, 170 people flooded into one of the performance halls of the Logan Center for the Arts for the first of five events in a new Spotlight Reading Series organized by Court Theatre. The series, which is free and open to the public, challenges the notion of what makes a play a “classic” by putting on staged readings of works by playwrights who are often neglected within the classical anthology of theater—including Joseph A. Walker, Douglas Turner Ward, and René Marqués, to name a few. The series, which started on February 22 with Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin, has come to fruition because of a three-year Spotlight Grant the Court received in May 2015 from the Joyce Foundation, a longtime partner.

Over the course of the next three years, Court will use the grant, totaling $240,000, to curate and produce fifteen plays by writers of color in various organizations housed in neighborhoods all over the South Side. Court is one of ten organizations to receive this grant, which is meant to provide support for systematic diversification that the Foundation hopes will produce lasting effects on the arts and culture in Chicago. Just two other South Side-based organizations received the grant—$225,000 went to the Hyde Park Art Center, and the National Museum of Mexican Art was one of four organizations that received the highest amount, $300,000.

Court’s use of the grant is a continuation of efforts to diversify production and subsequent audience engagement rather than a shift in their goals—productions like the recent Satchmo Festival celebrating Louis Armstrong’s legacy are spiritually connected to this enduring mission. “The idea of creating a reading series which is focused on classic African-American texts takes our work on the African-American canon to other parts of the city as a part of new audience development,” Stephen J. Albert, executive director of Court, said over the phone last week. Court’s previous efforts have mostly been centered on productions in its main season by directors and writers of color; the reading series is the first endeavor of its kind under the umbrella of this mission.

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At the core of this series is Ron OJ Parson, who first arrived about ten years ago to direct Fences by August Wilson, and soon after became Court’s Resident Artist, now with about ten shows under his belt. Court has supported Parson’s ongoing work to diversify the Court’s productions through the Joyce Foundation, with yearly grants of smaller sums since 2007. Court will use some of this current grant to continue supporting Parson.
Parson has created diversity at Court through production—not only was he deeply involved enough in the Satchmo Festival to recommend Barry Shabaka Henley, the actor who portrayed Louis Armstrong in the current production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, but he also came up with the idea for the reading series. When the Joyce Foundation invited Court to apply for the three-year grant, the already concocted reading series seemed like a good fit, Albert said.

“We want to open up the possibilities for what is vibrant and culturally diverse,” Parson said. “We should have theater that exhibits that.”

The goals for the current grant are twofold: first, to be able to produce the ongoing reading series, which is being headed by Parson, and second, to develop an internal mentor-mentee structure at Court to give opportunity to talented directors and actors of color, says Albert. Court has found the first (and currently, only) recipient of the Joyce Fellowship in Aaron Mays, who will work alongside Parson to co-produce the series for the next three years. After the grant (and the series) is over, Albert says, Mays may move on from Court, and other mentorships may be created, but this professional mobility for mentees is exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.

“Building a framework, a pipeline to our goals, we are bringing people who are not used to working with an institution from within, and helping them build themselves professionally,” Albert says.

Within this framework, Parson has created a fortified network of colleagues, recruiting, actors and directors he has worked with in the past decade who haven’t necessarily worked with Court before. With their help, he goes about the day-to-day tasks of what it takes to organize these events and attract larger and larger audiences, always working to “spread the word of the theater,” he says.

Ultimately, however, these initiatives are meant to provide a more engaging and inclusive experience for their audiences by producing the typically overlooked African-American canon of theater and performing artswork Parson has personally undertaken since his arrival at Court directing August Wilson’s work. “These are plays I either acted in or directed—they’re plays from history,” Parson said. “I wanted to do history that showed some of the classics, but what people don’t realize is there are classics in black theater, Latino theater, and Native American theater.”

Such a reading series, named after the grant, surely makes a clear statement about Court’s intentions on delivering such promises for cultural expansion; after all, the series is fueled by both Court’s extensive financial capacity and its cultural capital and recognition on the South Side. At the heart of this proliferation of the African-American canon is collaboration with South Side organizations. This potential for engagement with surrounding communities can only be amplified by partnerships between those that have the biggest stake in the cultural landscape. While the first reading took place in Hyde Park, most of them do not: other readings will be hosted at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the Stony Island Arts Bank, and the South Side Community Arts Center. By bringing the work to different neighborhoods, Court will garner the attention and participation of different people, and chances are, they’re people who don’t usually go to the theater.

“We see [this work] as removing certain barriers that exist, some of which are geographic, some are economic,” Albert says.

A reading series may seem like a curious choice for a grant of such large proportions. More important than a desire to make more representative, diverse theater, however, are the initial steps towards a more comprehensive structure that promotes inherently diverse production. Court found this potential in Ron OJ Parson, and supporting his role in Court’s current structure with this financial jumping-off point exhibits a larger commitment to what they hope to do as an institution. Once the series ends, for example, Court hopes to continue collaboration with these other South Side institutions in future projects, Albert said. In other words, a conscious effort to popularize and disseminate the African-American canon is great, but making sure there is structural support for the compassionate people on the inside who are helping to develop that mission is far better.

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