Black theater provokes change

By Emily Ornberg

A gunshot hits Sgt. Vernon Waters of the South’s segregated black military, and he enigmatically cries his last words, “They still hate you!” as he falls to his death.

When the lights dimmed and the curtains came down, the cast rejoiced backstage after another performance of “A Soldier’s Play” at Hidden Stages Theater Company. The year was in 1994.

Afterward, stage manager Vincent Williams sat distraught in his apartment. He was sure the play would receive a Jeff Award for excellence in professional Chicago theater. But, according to Williams at the time, work of most other African-American productions was generally swept under the rug, according to Williams.

“I heard about the BTAA, and I just always thought of that being something way above me,” Davis said of the honor. “I figured I have yeI felt that we weren’t being recognized,” he said. “We were kind of being overlooked as far as giving accolades for our artistic work. So I said, ‘Well this talent has to be recognized. Let me create something to honor African-Americans in theater.’”

The following year Williams organized the first Black Theater Alliance Awards as a nonprofit organization to support and recognize local African-Americans in the performing arts. Eighteen years later, the annual ceremony continues its mission of putting the spotlight on Chicago talent.

Columbia sophomore theater major David Davis said he never thought he would receive such an award. To his surprise, in August he was nominated for the BTAA Denzel Washington Award for Most Promising Actor for his performance as Isaac in the Open Door Repertory Company’s production of “Train is Comin’,” the story of nine freed slaves who in 1870 set out to raise money for the first African-American college.

ars to go before being nominated for something.”

While his nomination might have been unexpected, Davis has already achieved several accomplishments. At 18 he was selected to receive a scholarship based on his involvement with school organizations and his high grades. Davis was the first African-American male to get into his high school’s dance organization, Cass Tech Dance Workshop. And though he was homeless, he graduated high school with a 3.9 GPA.

Davis broke another barrier last spring by getting cast as Frank Sinatra in Columbia’s interpretive dance show “The Best is Yet to Come.”

“Even when I auditioned for [the show] I thought to myself, ‘Hopefully I can get into the chorus because there’s no way I could be Sinatra; he’s not an African-American,’” Davis said. “African-Americans don’t have to keep portraying the same character as the ‘ghetto,’ or the ‘thug.’ We can have positive roles out there.”

Williams said more well-renowned Chicago theater companies like Steppenwolf, Lookingglass and Goodman theaters are using more African-American directors, actors and playwrights.

Kamesha Khan, an associate professor of theater at Chicago State University, said there are pros and cons to larger companies using more black talent.

“It’s great that the major theater companies are offering African-Americans the opportunity to showcase their talents,” Khan said. “But when it comes to funding, what happens as a result of this growth, if you want to call it that, is that a lot of smaller black companies who have historically provided a lot of space for African-Americans to grow lose out on the access to funding that major regional companies gain access to.”

Williams acknowledged that progress has been made, but emphasized that the goals of the BTTA are long-term.

“There is growth, [but] there needs to be more,” he said. “Continued growth, that’s the key word. Because we don’t want to have a few good years and then stop.”

The 18th annual Black Theater Alliance Awards will take place at 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 8, at the Schultz Auditorium in the Illinois Institute of Technology Building, 10 W. 35th St. For ticket information, visit