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Digging Diversity

Out favorite artsy spots that celebrat diversity.
Wednesday Jan 26, 2005.     By Venita Griffin
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

America began to celebrate the significant impact African-Americans have had on society in February 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson launched "Negro History Week" as a response to the paltry attention paid to black American history in textbooks. In 1976 the celebration expanded fourfold to take over the entire month of February, and "Black History Month" was born.

It's only proper that a city as ethnically and culturally diverse as Chicago pull out all the stops when honoring the innumerable social, political and economic contributions African-Americans have made. From discussions on "jazz royalty" to film screenings, you'll find works by and celebrating black artists presented in the city over the next few weeks. By no means an exhaustive list, this sampling of venues committed to diversity year-round as well as in February is meant to inspire you to get out and see a show or exhibit that, perhaps, takes you out of your milieu.

Steppenwolf Theatre
Now in its third decade, Steppenwolf has received national and international recognition for its programming. In February, the Company will stage two works that feature black protagonists. "We consistently seek to collaborate with artists who challenge and inspire us again and again, artists who expand the way we think about ourselves and the times we live in," says Curt Columbus, Steppenwolf's Associate Artistic Director. "We are committed to exploring the American voice in all of our programming, and certainly the African- American experience is a significant part of that exploration."

"Intimate Apparel" follows Esther, an African-American woman living at the dawn of the last century who makes a living for herself sewing delicate lingerie. Her rare talent allows her access into the lives of the privileged, where she learns that no one is what they seem. The winner of five national awards for Best Play, "Intimate Apparel" was awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Adapted from Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's book of the same name, "The Bluest Eye" is the story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a girl who wants nothing more than the love of her family and schoolmates, but instead faces constant teasing and abuse. Convinced her dark skin is to blame, Pecola prays for blue eyes, certain they'll bring her the love she desires. Set in 1940s Ohio, "The Bluest Eye" uses powerful prose and rich imagery to examine race, standards of beauty and how they relate to a young girl's coming of age. Call for performance dates and times.

Museum of Contemporary Photography
While not devoted specifically to the work of a black artist, the Museum of Contemporary Photography's (MOCP) "Manufactured Self" looks through the lenses of 13 international artists to examine how "the things we consume both reflect and construct our identities."

One of those 13 artists is the Ghanaian-born New Yorker Philip Kwame Apagya. Apagya's images feature his countrymen posed in front of a variety of painted backgrounds that reflect their fantasies: subjects are boarding a private plane, standing in front of a suburban dream house or pointing to a new television. This technique is rooted in a tradition of West African studio portraiture in which the subjects often ask to appear more affluent in the photograph than they are in reality.

Ron Humbertson, the Museum's Marketing and Development Assistant, says the Museum strives to showcase diverse photographers in its exhibitions. "A multicultural perspective is critical to our mission to uphold the most important artistic photography of our time." The exhibit runs through March 3.

Dance Center of Columbia College
The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago opens its 2005 AfroContempo Festival, which celebrates both African-American and African-based dance artists, with Senegalese artist Germaine Acogny. Acogny will perform, Tchourai, a solo piece that takes its name from the incense Senegalese women burn to purify their homes and to attract and seduce their husbands. Tchourai takes the viewer on a journey through Acogny's life and features text by poet Xavier Orville of Martinique. Acogny will run February 2526.

The remaining three programs in the Festival, which feature Ralph Lemon (March 36), Compagnie TcheTche (March 1719) and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence (April 1416), use movement and dance theater to highlight race, culture and place.

Goodman Theatre
This show doesn't begin until March, but it's too good not to mention. As cultural institutions work to diversify their audiences by offering a wide variety of programming year-round, the Goodman is no exception. "It is part of the Goodman's mission to diversify its productions, audiences and staff and has been for over 20 years," say Cindy Bandle, Goodman's Press Director. "We regularly program works that appeal to African-American audiences."

To that end, Goodman will present "The Story," written by Tracey Scott Wilson, an African-American playwright, from March 5 through April 10. In "The Story," an ambitious African-American reporter is hired by a major newspaper but feels her assigned section is marginalizing her; she remains confident she can be promoted to the Metro section once she lands the right story. When an affluent white man is killed in a "bad" neighborhood, the reporter solves the murder case with a startling scoop: but is it the truth? "The Story" examines "the fine line between a good story and a true story in the American media."

DuSable Museum
Founded in 1961 by a diverse group of Chicago artists and educators, this South Side institution set out to combat the "institutionalized omission of black history and culture in the education establishment." The oldest museum of its kind in the country and the only major independent organization in Chicago dedicated to preserving and interpreting the historical experiences and achievements of African-Americans, two of DuSable's exhibits deserve particular attention this month.

In "Countdown to Eternity: A Photo-documentary of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement," photographer Benedict J. Fernandez presents 78 black and white photographic prints that provide an "historical view of the pivotal events in Dr. King's last year and a look at the civil rights leaders instrumental in the movement." The exhibit runs through May 9.

Born in a small Illinois town, Annie Malone was a little-known beauty industry pioneer who by the 1920s was running a multi-million-dollar empire. At the peak of her career, Malone employed 100,000 workers, operated 48 beauty schools nationwide and owned a city block of four mansions. Take a walk through Malone's amazing life, courtesy of "Annie Malone: Black Beauty Culture Pioneer and Millionaire;" through Dec. 3.

The HotHouse continues its long tradition of supporting black musicians and acknowledging their influence on world culture in its Legends of the African Diaspora Series. Jorge Ben Jor's unique guitar style makes him one of Brazil's most recognizable musicians and should put him on the map of most Chicagoans following his Feb. 21 and 22 HotHouse appearances. Programming moves to the Athenaeum Theater (2936 N. Southport) on Feb. 23 when the 30-plus-members of the aptly named Peru Negro present black Peruvian music, born after slave masters in colonial Peru banned drums and Africans turned to tables, chairs and anything that would make noise to preserve their outlawed rhythms.

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble takes the stage at the HotHouse on Feb. 25. Musicians Kahlil El'Zabar, Joseph Bowie and Ernest Dawkins have spent the last 20 years marrying traditional African rhythms and melodies with modern African-American music in a perfect blend of past and present.


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