Last November, the board for the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago turned to Charlique Rolle for its next chapter. Rolle, executive director of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre, officially became AAAC’s new president in late August, succeeding Black Ensemble Theatre’s Jackie Taylor. Taylor, a co-founder of the nonprofit Alliance, dedicated to promoting individuals and organizations within the Black arts community across genres, served as the org’s president since its founding 25 years ago.
As Taylor and her co-founders built on the legacy of the original 1977 Chicago Black Theater Alliance, Rolle is preparing to lead the Alliance into the future, and looking to ensure that Chicago is a place where Black artists not only want to come but want to stay and build their own legacies.
“I’m just really passionate about supporting Black artists across the city,” Rolle said, “telling our stories and ensuring that we have the resources that we need, all of which the Alliance does.”
As executive director of Congo Square, a company that has long been an Alliance member, Rolle said the decision to take the job leading the Alliance was easy. Since she joined Congo Square in the thick of 2020, she could see the importance of the Alliance firsthand as questions rose about how the theatre industry and the arts sector at large could better support Black organizations and artists. Rolle said she became interested in how to continue building on that support, focusing on the specific needs and strengths of Black arts organizations.
When she joined the Alliance board, she was looking for ways to connect leaders and organizations across the various art forms. She helped the Alliance produce events, including starting the Black United Series. That series brought forth the Black Theater United Auditions, which seeks to bring together Black theatres, directors, and artists, even if just on Zoom, to share space and resources.
Next up for the Alliance is an October celebration of Black Arts Month, kicking off with a North Side convening at Black Ensemble Theatre on Oct. 9. Two other events are planned for the month, including a South Side convening celebrating Black storytelling through digital media, with a panel facilitated by Troy Pryor at Retreat at Currency Exchange, and a West Side convening celebrating storytelling through theatre, poetry, film, and dance at Muse Coffee Studio. Multi-hyphenate artist Melissa Duprey will host both events, and the celebration will feature artists from Black Ensemble Theater, Congo Square, Perceptions Theatre, and more.
“Black Arts Month is really just a taste of what we hope to continue to do for artists on the regular,” Rolle said, “giving them opportunities to showcase their work, to be featured, to be highlighted.”
As the Alliance heads into its celebratory month, and Rolle’s home theatre of Congo Square raises a glass to 25 years in Chicago, Rolle talked about her vision for the future for both organizations, and how cross-genre collaboration can lift all boats. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: As you look at the last 25 years under Taylor’s leadership, how has her tenure shaped how you want this organization to move into the future and your goals as the new Arts Alliance president?
CHARLIQUE ROLLE: The foundation had been laid with all of the founders, that the Alliance was to be a place where Black artists and Black organizations could find what they need to be supported and to build community. I’m really interested in how our art-making really helps in community development and how it connects to community organizing, how it connects to telling our stories authentically, and creating space for the new generation of artists.
We are all so different. There’s so many of us who are beyond just one genre of art-making to tell our stories. How can we build more cross-pollination around that? How can we really build resources that are very specific for Black organizations, for us as a community? How can we really continue to ensure that the community is involved in the entire process? I’m really interested in how we can do that, how the Alliance can really become a hub for Black Chicago artists, and really the voice of Black Chicago art and culture.
When you look at that goal of creating a hub for Black Chicago artists, and encouraging Black artists to come to and build their legacies in Chicago, where have you seen gaps or missteps in the past? Where has the disconnect been?
That’s quite a loaded question, because I think it’s nuanced for each genre. I’ll use an example I’ve heard recently for a theatre artist who is an independent artist, is not attached to an organization or anything. One of the things is, there’s been some commodification of Black artists in spaces. I think that, back in the, I want to say, ’60s and ’70s, Chicago had over 30 Black theatres. Today there are probably less than 10. So even having a space that is built by and for Black artists, there are such limitations. In addition to that, you have the scarcity of resources.
So you’re trying to balance, “I want to work for a company that reflects me, but they don’t have enough resources for me to actually make a living.” So it’s the compromise of, “How do I actually support myself while still feeling like I’m supported, in a place that feels safe, and in a place where I feel like I can be challenged?” And not just, “I’m here in this space because of the name of the place and what the acclaim means.” The Black theatre might be the space where I really want to be, and that Black theatre should also have the same name acclaim.
I think what is interesting about the Chicago market in a lot of the artistic spaces, in comparison to New York or L.A., where there’s just so much competition—Chicago is really community-oriented. There is more opportunity, I think, to create things on your own. I want the Alliance to help support and incubate more the creation of things. Not just being able to create a thing on your own, but have the space and the funding and the support that you need so that it can actually become something that is thriving and something that you can build upon.
Thinking more specifically about theatres, and the conversation about whether to invest in “fixing” predominantly/historically white institutions versus investing in culturally specific theatres, how do you see that balance as the field tries to figure out the best way forward?
I think that it is so nuanced, and I think it’s a “both and.” I think that both of those things can coexist and should coexist. The reality also is that there are Black artists who may not work for Black companies, even if they are available. So how do we still equip and give them the tools and skill sets that they need to thrive anywhere, while still also building our Black arts and culture sector? Certainly, I think there has to be more priority in building spaces for us because there are just nuances that are intangible about being a Black body in a Black space. How do we create more of those environments? It takes a lot more effort to do that in PWIs. It is worth the effort to make sure that those spaces are safe, but it’s also not the responsibility of Black bodies to do that. We can support, but more often than not it becomes our responsibility. Quite frankly, sometimes in Black spaces it also has to be done.
There are so many incredible organizations on both sides, but there are mediocre organizations as well on both sides. But it always feels like Black organizations or organizations of color are more often pitted against each other. There’s definitely a shift in some philanthropic efforts toward more sustainable opportunities. But what does it actually look like for us to go into a funding room and not hear, “Oh, well, we are already funding this Black organization. What is different about you?” So it’s others pitting us against ourselves, us pitting ourselves against ourselves, us pitting ourselves against the other institutions. It makes it that much more exasperating because, again, the Black experience is not linear. It’s not the same for every person. It’s like we have to kind of get some language translation within our own community and then continue that in every other space. How do we really create more support in that?
I don’t want to waste this chance to talk a bit about Congo Square as well. You joined at a very particular time, as the pandemic was well into its shutdown of the industry. How have the last few years been for you all, and how are things looking moving forward?
Starting in the middle of COVID was wild. But for me, honestly, it was a real blessing. Coming into this organization with such a long history, so many people that are invested and involved—by having a forced shut-down, I really was able to come in and spend time building relationships with our artists, with our board, and really hearing their vision and their desire and hope for who Congo could be and who it was.
We’ve expanded our programming. So we are back in live productions, but we’ve also moved into digital productions. We have an audio series, we have a sketch comedy web series. Even those things that were birthed in COVID, we’ve been able to really expand how we’re doing our work and how we’re telling our stories. I’m really interested in how our art works to intersect with community organizing and community development and policy, and how it really shapes our society outside of just, “Here is our presented work.” How does this actually inform how we support people?
So over the last two years, we’ve started working toward these radical models. Our “radical generosity,” we provide up to 50 percent of our tickets either free or heavily subsidized for community members, trying to keep the majority of our programing either free or very low cost. We want to, as a culturally specific institution, we want our work to be as accessible to as many people as possible, particularly to our Black communities. The arts are so vital to communities, but sometimes it feels so unreachable. We don’t want that to be the case for our work, especially for the stories that we’re telling.
The second part of our vision is “radical community.” Sometimes the first time somebody might connect with us is through these free or subsidized tickets, and that’s super cool, and that might be their only touchpoint. But we’re also like, okay, what does this actually look like for us to do community together? What does building a partnership look like? That might look like us doing residencies with your students. Just, what are the on-ramps that we can do to build partnership, to do work together, whether that is co-fundraising, co whatever, to really amplify our collective work.
Then the third thing is “radical expansion.” Over the last two years we’ve been focusing on those first two. Now we’re moving into that expansion. What does it look like for us to continue to expand our work physically, digitally, thinking about a permanent home? We’ve been itinerant for a while now. We love that, because it enables us to really be able to be a theatre for the city. We go to different parts of the city, we engage our programming all over. What does it look like for us to have a place where people can come and engage with us and really have a home, but still be able to go to places that can’t come to us? It’s been a lot of immense growth over the last few years.
You’ve been in Chicago about around a decade now. How have you see the city’s arts scene change over those years?
I’ve been on a lot of different sides of the industry. When I first came to Chicago, I started on the dance side of the industry, then I took some time and I was actually in full-time ministry for about five years, and then came back onto the theatre side. What I have seen shift in Chicago’s art landscape is really the elevation of this idea—and it’s not novel, it’s just really been prioritized—the idea of artivism and how we use our art as activism.
The other thing that I’m seeing is, there’s a lot more intentional advocacy for artists on behalf of themselves, particularly individual artists, and how certain organizations are taking care of artists. We’ve often been both the poster child and the stepchild at the same time. So what does it look like to actually take care of artists, for artists to be able to say no to things and know that they have agency and they have a voice and they can advocate for themselves?
It’s also been interesting to see more partnership with the arts in various spaces outside of the arts. What I mean by that is, the arts are a huge part of any society, yet it is often one of the first things to get cuts in funding—“We don’t need this, this is a luxury.” In actuality, if we think about the power of the arts to move things forward in policy, in every single room, in our economy, then it shifts the narrative of the place of art in society. That’s what I want to see more of. I want to see more artists in rooms talking about public policy, on public safety, more artists in the room on policies on housing and neighborhoods.
One of the things that we do at Congo Square, we have this initiative called our “Celebration of Healing.” Sometimes we tackle difficult topics, but we put them into community conversations. We partner with city agencies to highlight the work, but also to try to help move things forward. Right now, we are in a production called Welcome to Matteson! (through Oct. 1) that deals with the housing displacement from Cabrini-Green residents to Matteson, Ill., south suburbs. The issues of displacement, the issues of reverse gentrification—because the story really is about a Black couple in the south suburbs who didn’t want the Black couple from Chicago, Cabrini-Green, to come into their safe space.
So we’re engaging with various organizations that are doing housing displacement work, housing justice, housing equity, that are coming, presenting work. We’re providing access to their resources to our community, to our audiences. Then it’s like, “Here’s a connection that’s not just a really great show, also here’s the real-world implications of this and here’s how we can support this.”
Sometimes everything doesn’t need to be that deep. It doesn’t. But when we have the space, we want to be able to highlight that. For us, even the name “Celebration of Healing,” it has something intentional, something that is facilitating joy. This is a healing space that we want to move progress toward.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago Editor for American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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