Ancestor Abena Joan Brown: Catalyst for Creative Arts
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
By Kai El'Zabar, Executive Director of ETA Creative Arts Foundation
[Republished by permission of the author]
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Ancestor Abena Joan Brown
After 40 years of commitment to the building of ETA Creative Arts Foundation, South Siders were shocked when, in 2011, Abena Joan Brown announced that she was retiring. Abena had made every curtain call to implement consistency and impress upon the minds of those who supported the organization that ETA was here to stay. Her appearance was always one in which she welcomed the guests and then made her appeal for support. So, when Abena let go of the reins and moved on, many were looking for at least one book -maybe a few- to emerge out of her retirement. Instead, she all but disappeared.
On Sunday, July 12, 2015, Abena made another exit... However, her contribution, as President and Chief Executive Officer of ETA Creative Arts Foundation, is but one of many major accomplishments for which she will be remembered.
Abena built ETA Creative Arts Foundation and led it into a major presence to be reckoned with in the Black community, joining Chicago’s league of community theatres. She used her corporate background as an Executive at the YWCA to benefit our community. In 1969, while still wearing her corporate hat she, along with others, founded Ebony Talent Associates
(ETA). In 1971, ETA became the only African-American full-service cultural arts collective in the nation.
Those of us who have known her will always remember her as a powerful force- a shrewd and masterful businesswoman- who understood the necessity for a plan and the actual need to work the plan. She understood the connection of money to power and [she had] the ability to be self-determined. She understood the importance of a foundation grounded and steeped in the history of who you are, where you come from, and where you are going. She valued the significance of telling our own stories. So, for years she labored to refine the vision she had of ETA Creative Arts Foundation. She put her Master's degree in the "Cultivation of Community Organization and Management" from the University of Chicago's School of Social Service, Administration School to work for, as well as to contribute to, the development and growth of cultural institutions and was a staunch advocate for Black theatre in Chicago.
When it was time to work the plan, Abena put her money where her mouth was, investing her own money as she solicited contributions from others who rallied to her aid. By 1978, ETA had moved to its current home. Originally purchased as a 15,000 square foot facility to be renovated at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue, ETA became a spacious 250-seat theater, with ample gallery space, classrooms, and studios for programs in theater, music, and the visual arts.
Under Abena's leadership as CEO, ETA provided full-time jobs for those in the arts and nurtured innumerable young playwrights, visual artists, actors, and production crews while always insisting that the work represent authentic Black stories as told by Black people. To her credit, Abena Joan Brown produced one-hundred-fifty (150) professional theater productions.
Her greatest challenge was raising the necessary funds to run and operate the facility. Throughout her 40 years with the company, she'd inevitably solicit the audience for their invaluable support and, in so doing, she kept the business flowing. Her business sense led her to create and form relationships and alliances with powerful decision-makers in the business world who could assist in her fund-raising efforts.
ETA was a work in progress and, thus, she had a vision of expanding it. However, although the organization received a million-dollar grant, the Board was not able to bring the vision to fruition. Hence, her tenacity and fearlessness gave in to time and age and this did not happen before she retired. The new management has quickly learned that fundraising is challenging.
Runako Jahi,long-time Protégée and Artistic Director at ETA said:
“What Abena did for me, personally, was to recognize my abilities and how they could be best utilized. Her legacy is to provide Blacks opportunities to triumph through the telling of their own stories. It was important to me that I could find my soul through it. When ETA was founded, only Kuumba Theater led by Abena’s close friend, Val Gray Ward, was presenting Black works rather than taking the work of white playwrights and performing them in Chicago. Abena led the way by reserving the right to tell our stories our way. She changed the paradigm and in doing so set a precedent.”
Her many honors include:
An Award of Merit from the Black Theater Alliance;
The Paul Robeson Award from the Chicago African American Arts Alliance;
The Governor’s Award in the Arts; and
The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Joseph Jefferson Committee.
Abena Joan Brown has also been cited as one of America’s Top Business and Professional Women by Dollars and Sense magazine. She was also inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame.
[From Ancestor Barbara Kensey]
Abena Joan Brown received a Doctorate of Humane Letters Degree from Chicago State University in 1993.
She spearheaded the acquisition of an entire city block- from 75th Street to 76th Street- along South Chicago Avenue.
ABENA and ME
by Damali Yaa, Dr. Carol Adams
Watching her gave me a mirror
I sought a new reflection
and I found it
The image was clear and focused
Black and burning bright
It radiated intentionality
And catalyzed change.
Her eyes compelled truth
And impelled action
Her mouth promised to tell it like it
The theater lived in her
Was employed to perfection
She knew how to work a crowd!
And work for her we did
Whether in Women Mobilized for Change
The Urban League
The Muntu Dance Theatre
Or the movement of her life –
ETA Creative Arts Theatre
Where MAGIC works
Her Magic did work
And it made us all work
Work for change
Work for ascendancy
Work for liberation
We thrive and build
In the wake of your powerful example
There was no “can’t” in you
There was just sheer WILL
In 1983, ETA produced its second play in their new building at 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue (Chicago), "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" by Melvin Van Peebles in which Abena Joan Brown performed the role of 'The Crazy Old Scavenger Lady'. The name of her sequence was called 'Put A Curse On You!'
The play was produced by Abena and directed by Actress Bea Winde who was nominated for a Tony Award as 'Best Performance by a Featured Actress" in the 1972 Broadway musical production of the show. Runako Jahi, actor, playwright, poet, and drama instructor who later became the Artistic Director at ETA (1990) played the role of 'Salamaggi', a corrupt cop. The first show, performed at ETA in 1983, "Journey Through Forever", was a musical written by Oscar Brown, Jr. It was also produced by Abena Joan Brown.
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