American Blues Theater: giving voice to visceral ideas

At the following addresses you can find a theater company that works with and for the community: Performance Venue 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60614; and Office & Rehearsals 4809 N. Ravenswood, Suite #221 Chicago, IL 60640. This theater company is called American Blues Theater and they aim at producing theatrical works that generate controversy and at the same time engage their audience with local and national service agencies. They work towards giving a space to ideas of freedom, equal rights, and opportunity in the approaches they produce and the communities they serve.

They have a very wide staff with a combined experience of 530 years of collaboration on stage. They have what they call an “Ensemble” which is a group of people dedicated to collective creation and committed to consistently working together to create an artistic expression. Its members are empowered to help change and create their theater’s artistic direction and organizational structure. They apply this concept perfectly and have received over 172 Joseph Jefferson Awards and nominations that make them very well known in the Chicago scene, and over 28 Black Theater Alliance Awards. Their artists have awards such as Pulitzer Prize nominations, Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Emmy Awards, and many other awards.

Their history goes back to the year 1985 with the minds of Ed Blatchford, Rick Cleveland, James Laming, and William Payne. At first, the company dedicated itself to new and classic American plays. In August of 1993, the company moved to a warehouse on Byron and Lincoln. These were the first steps towards helping the community because James Leaming assembled a group of more than 90 volunteers from the local community to transform the space into theater with 134 seats.

In a 12 year span, From 1997-2009, the company had many changes and underwent an “outside” administration. This was a good thing because the theater’s name changed to American Theater Company (ATC), the mission statement was checked and changed and the business expanded. In 2008 “major administrative and artistic differences” caused the company to separate and all four Founders and every Ensemble member prior to 2008 left the ATC organization.

In 2009, the Ensemble got together again and started over, now with the new name American Blues Theater and with the support of its founding Board members who gave the new theater all their support and guidance. After this, it was all downhill from there. Ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside had the opportunity of being the Producing Artistic Director and under her watch the theater doubled the size of its Ensemble and added 26 Artistic Affiliates.

She created the nationally-recognized Blue Ink Playwriting Award, the Blueprint play development, designed community service and started the program The Lincoln Project for Chicago Public Schools.

When it comes to the theater and their commitment to the community, their goal is clear: to provide community service for many not-for-profits like the Lynn Sage Foundation, Chicago Public Schools body, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Farm Bureau, Misericordia, PAWS Chicago, and the USO. They are also very committed to their food & book drives, to distributing promotional tickets, and raising awareness for children’s surgeries and health needs. They also make donations from what they make in “Pink Previews” to the Lynn Sage Foundation for breast cancer research.

One of their main community programs is the Arts education Lincoln project. This project was created in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for Emancipation . The project aims to provide a free arts education program to all the grades from 5th to 10th grade in Chicago Public Schools and surrounding communities.

theater_american blues teather_charity_chicago_Yosef Meystel

Image courtesy of Jonathan Moreau at

In the program students read scenes that are found in “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” and the theater study guide, watch scenes performed live in the classroom and participate in discussions. Students then have to write and perform their own scenes inspired in their own personal experiences or special events. The Lincoln Project is free to all Chicago Public Schools and it covers almost 1,000 students every year.

There are many ways to help and get involved with American Blues Theater. For example, there are special Events that people can attend to such as the Blue Bash and the GutterBall. Each event raises funds to support their artists and programs; people can work directly with them as they are always looking for directors, designers, staff, actors, and manuscript submissions; you can give a donation or volunteer or work as an intern to gain experience working in a professional theater while earning college credit

As for the present year, they have acquired many awards now and continue to help schools throughout the Chicago area. They are still addressing very delicate topics in their plays and are encouraging people to be more aware of their world and surroundings. All through theater.

Be sure to also check this amazing article on how big corporations are helping Chicago.


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