By Deva Woodly
Photo by Michael Brosilow, Courtesy of Court Theatre

For us, there was total agreement. We believed it should be central to our mission to serve the South Side of Chicago”
—Elaine Wackerly
Court Theatre’s Director of Development

Court Theatre’s production of Caroline, or Change, Tony Kushner’s poignant musical, earned descriptions such as “gripping,” “masterful,” and “compelling” from local theater critics. Several times record-breaking, standing-room crowds delayed the opening curtain by 20 minutes. The show’s run was extended a full week.

Caroline, a breakout hit, marked a new tradition at Court—invigorating the theater canon by including diverse voices and dynamic perspectives. Artistic Director Charles Newell is determined to make sure “classic” does not mean merely old.

In 2005, Newell proposed a daring proposition: Court should explore the African American canon. Though there are several black theater groups in Chicago, it is rare for other theaters to make a consistent effort to include African American stories in their annual seasons.

“For us, there was total agreement,” says Elaine Wackerly, Court Theatre’s Director of Development, “we believed it should be central to our mission to serve the South Side of Chicago.”

In the beginning, it wasn’t clear whether Court’s attempt to cover new ground would be successful. Traditionally, theater audiences are older, wealthier, and whiter than the general population of the city. “We didn’t know how people would react. And the truth is, some of our regular patrons did complain,” says Wackerly.

But Court pressed on, and its 2006 production of August Wilson’s Fences was widely praised.

As a compliment to the play, Court invited surviving members of the Negro League to share their experiences with the audience after the play, an innovation that has served the theater well. “We found that we began packing the house not only for the performance, but also for the discussion,” says Wackerly.

Commitment to Change

Adam Thurman, Director of Marketing and Communication, adds, “We realized pretty early on that we had to do more than simply put on these plays. We had to make a genuine, top-to-bottom effort to diversify our board of trustees, our artists, and our staff.”

Thurman, a Chicago theater veteran, says he surprised himself with his willingness to become a part of Court Theatre: “I’ve seen a lot of arts organizations talk about being diverse, but usually those proposals do not come from a real desire to transform the organization inside and out.”

However, Thurman sensed a genuine passion to change at Court, evident in its investment in leadership that could help convey a different artistic point of view. For example, the theater brought on Ron OJ Parson, a renowned African American actor, director, and producer, as Artist-in-Residence under a grant from the Joyce Foundation.

In addition, Court has put together a Community Engagement Committee made up of members of the theater’s board of trustees, audience members, and community leaders. The committee goes beyond finding an African American audience for African American productions; rather, it aims to connect the South Side community with Court Theatre as an institution.

Expanding the Traditional Audience

Though the curtain has closed on Caroline, Court’s season continues with Radio Macbeth, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which runs through Dec. 7. The production, like the last, provides Court with an opportunity to reach out to teachers and students at local schools. Thurman explains, “For us, there’s no difference. It’s about expanding the traditional audience.”

Court has had remarkable success on that count. In three years, the theater has increased its African American audience from 3 to 25 percent. Even more impressive, about one-third of the current staff of artists and actors at Court are people of color.

Wackerly believes Court has a unique constellation of advantages that helps it toward its goal: “First, we’re on the South Side, so the audience is the community right outside our doors. Second, we stick with classics, and that means that the themes in all the pieces are universal.

“Third,” she says, with a broad smile, “We’re really good.”

“There’s something about being authentic that you can’t quite articulate,” Thurman adds. “When people see Court’s commitment to diversity and community engagement, in our art and in our organization, they know that this is a core part of our mission, and it’s not going to stop.”