The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student News Site of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Black Arts Month Kick-off brings a night of performances and new beginnings for the B.A.C.A.

Maya Oclassen

As Charlique Rolle and Vershawn Sanders-Ward took the stage Monday evening, bright screens displaying the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago logo started to slowly shift. New projections reading Black Arts & Culture Alliance of Chicago replaced the images, marking a new chapter for the 26-year-old organization. 

The celebration of Black Arts Month kicked off Oct. 9 at the Black Ensemble Theater with a music set from DJ Diaspora and performances by the cast of “A Taste of Soul” and Red Clay Dance Company. Rolle and Sanders-Ward, newly appointed president and vice president of the African American Arts Alliance, also officially announced the alliance’s rebranding.

“When we think about the intentionality of the name and how it represents the vastness of culture, every Black artist in Chicago doesn’t identify as African American,” Rolle said.  

It was essential to Rolle and Sanders-Ward that the organization continued cultivating a space that felt like it was created for all members’ storytelling and artmaking.  

“What the alliance was when it was founded is what it needed to be for that period of time and for those artists that were there,” Rolle said. “We get to honor that now but also create a new vision of what is needed for the artists of today.”  

Erin Harkey, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, also spoke during the event, touching on the recent attention centered around the state of the city’s theater sector. A report commissioned by her department earlier this month revealed attendance at shows dropped by 60% since 2019, according to WBEZ.  

Noting that much of the conversation focused on a more negative narrative, Harkey took a moment to point out some of the more reassuring findings. 

“Yes, there are things to be concerned about but there are also some really positive trends in there too that have to do with the health of our small and BIPOC institutions,” Harkey said.  

Some of the positives mentioned in her speech included an increase in average staff for small and medium-budget size organizations and a 46% increase in individual contributions for BIPOC organizations, supporting 5% more of their total expenses over time. 

During a meeting between Mayor Brandon Johnson and theater producers, Harkey recalled leaders within the industry sharing optimistic updates about their organizations. 

“The BIPOC arts leaders in the room were saying things like ‘we’re expanding.’ ‘I’m building a new arts complex,’ ‘we’ve tripled our budget size,’ ‘I’ve got a waiting list for my performances,’” Harkey said. 

Before the night concluded, Rolle and Sanders-Ward opened the conversation to the audience. Attendees shared their personal stories, asked questions, and leaned on one another for support.

Matty Robinson, an actor on HBO Max’s South Side, appreciated the opportunity to hear from others in the space. 

“As artists and producers of color, we seem to have some of the same issues of finding local talent, looking for opportunities and trying to find a pathway to better our careers,” Robinson said. “As bittersweet as it felt, I loved seeing everyone connecting and exchanging information after the event. I hope it continues.”

While planning the kick-off, Rolle hoped the forum would allow her to hear from the community and better understand how to elevate and highlight Black artists across the city.  

“We see a lot of that desire for community,” Rolle said. “I think the reminder is that even as we build the future, the past helps us to shape it, and we are not throwing it all away. We are looking to understand, to refine and also to build a space for the next generation.”  

Celebrations of Black Arts Month will continue throughout the city in the coming weeks. The Black Arts & Culture Alliance will host the South Side Covening Oct. 16 at Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe and the West Side Covening Oct. 23 at Muse Coffee Studio. 

“This is a space for those to find community but also to find the resources of what it means to be a Chicago artist,” Rolle said.  

Visit the alliance’s official website to register for upcoming events and get involved.

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