BET will mark a quarter century of ebullient performances and enthusiastic audiences with encore runs of five of the company's most popular shows.
Meanwhile, to whet the appetite, they're also throwing a black-tie anniversary gala Oct. 6 at the DuSable Museum of African-American History, which will feature excerpts from the five upcoming revivals as well as performances from their two current hits, "The Jackie Wilson Story" and "Dynamite Divas." In between the many bring-down-the-house musical numbers, the evening's party planners promise to make time for food, champagne and a silent auction.
Appropriately, the first of the shows to be remounted for the 2001-02 season "The Other Cinderella," which opens Oct. 26 was also BET's very first, back in 1976. (The four other productions rounding out the season are "Doo Wop Shoo Bop," "Chicago's Golden Soul," "Sweet Mama Stringbean" and "Muddy Waters: The Hoochie Coochie Man.") As with many of BET's shows, Taylor wrote "The Other Cinderella" herself; at the time, all she had was a dream and a whole lot of drive.
"As an actress, I could see the void for African-American artists, as well as the lack of African-American material that was true and supportive of our culture," recalls Taylor, a Chicago native who grew up in Cabrini Green. "So what I decided to do was to build a theater company."
Her vision carried several intentions, perhaps the most paramount being the goal (found in BET's mission statement) to use art as "a cultural bridge, bringing people of all nationalities and cultures together to facilitate understanding and acceptance, while celebrating the uniqueness of the human spirit." In so doing, BET could also provide regular job opportunities for African-American artists.
One mark of the company's success in fulfilling its mission is its location: BET has occupied its North Side home since 1986, making it one of the very few professional African-American theater companies in the northern half of a very segregated city. While the theater draws diverse audiences today people of all colors currently groove together to the music of "Dynamite Divas" that wasn't always the case.
"Of course, it took time for that [diversity] to build," Taylor says. "First of all, Chicago is a very racist city. People are very separate in this city. But we have more in common as human beings than we have differences, and when you can get people to acknowledge and understand that, you begin to tear down the walls that exist. That's what the Black Ensemble productions are able to do.
"When we started, of course it was a very non-diverse audience and there was nothing wrong with that," she continues. "I loved it, and I love it today. Except part of our mission is to educate not only African-American people, but people of different nationalities, because it's part of our big mission to help eradicate racism."
The company pursues that mission with a passion. Early next year, BET aims to increase its recognition across the country by launching its first official touring company.
"Beginning in February, we'll have a major tour," Taylor says. "We'll go to 22 major U.S. cities and produce 'The Jackie Wilson Story.'" Considering the show ran for a whopping 20 months in Chicago, it's a good bet it will draw big crowds elsewhere, too.
There's a magic formula Taylor employs when making her theater. First of all, every show BET produces "must have at its nucleus a positive statement"; second, every show entertains as well as educates and music is the key.
"The common ground that appeals to everyone is music," Taylor says. "That's why most of our shows are musicals, because no matter who the music is about, you can rest assured that the music has crossed cultural barriers. So you might as well start with something that has already broken down the walls, and that's what music has done."
The Black Ensemble Theater is at 4520 N. Beacon St. BET's 25th anniversary gala will be held from 7-10 p.m. Oct. 6 at the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Pl. Tickets are $150. For more information about BET's shows or the gala, call 773-769-4451 or 773-769-5516.