Abena Joan Brown. . .

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Abena Joan Brown passed Sunday, July 12, 2015

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by Hermene Hartman

Abena Joan Brown was an unapologetic culturist, an Afro-centric culturist, that is. She was a one woman powerhouse, a dynamic force unto herself. She knew exactly what she wanted. She put the F in focus. She built a major institution for Black people to participate fully in the theater and the arts. She was a fundraiser, a director, an actress but most of all a producer. She transformed. She changed lives. She was stern and firm. If she loved you, it was without reservation and in her way she assumed responsibility for you, perhaps beyond what you knew or deserved. ETA was her creation. She was its developer from land, to seats, to fundraise, to stage. She served as president for four decades, since 1971.

She was a builder. She built a theater from a few uncomfortable seats to a plush 200-seat theater with an art gallery. The day the new theater opened was memorable. Her dream realized. She made an entire community participate in her vision. That evening she became the “Grand Yeye” long before the African Festival of the Arts installed her officially in 1994. She told the stories of Black life. Before ETA she was a Director of Program Services at the YWCA. Her bio reads that she produced over 200 professional productions.

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On Building ETA . . .

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click here for WTTW interview with Abena Joan Brown

If she saw talent, she developed it. I worked with Abena and her loyal board member and dear friend, Nancy McKeever. ** I was her publicist. We produced the season's brochure. My initial assignment was to have mainstream newspaper critics review ETA plays. The major papers were not paying attention to Black plays in Black theater houses. My task was to make them take notice.

It took a year to breakthrough. The night the Chicago Tribune critic was scheduled to review there was a very bad storm preventing him from attending opening night. Abena was disappointed and cussed me very badly. I quit, because I had no control over the storm. She thought he used the storm as an excuse, not to travel to the South Side. I had not thought of that. She told me, you are being paid to get the review. I don’t give a damn about the storm. I walked out of the theater, saying I would complete ETA's season schedule, but I was done. I went home, to wait for a furniture delivery. The fearless ETA ladies knocked on my door, to say they would wait with me. Abena said there is no quitting, no resigning until the job was complete. Your task, she said, is to get white press to view us. She apologized somewhat for using such harsh words. But, you can’t leave because we are a team.

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Her Afrocentric View . . .

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Abena and I became friends. She was a no nonsense person, and made everybody live beyond themselves. Eventually the white critics came to review ETA plays. They were surprised and most were in awe of Abena herself. She wanted to show another dynamic on Black life. It’s important for us to tell our story, to define ourselves, to claim what’s important, was her teaching.

When I started N'DIGO, we talked a lot about the concept, the idea of a newspaper of features. I worked off of her concept of telling our story, featuring our people, showcasing our world, with no apology. Of course, she was a cover story and received the NDIGO Award in 2000. She was proud she told me that evening. I was prouder of her. She told me I would change, because now you are on a mission. Do your job right, because you will represent people, she told me. Use your voice as you become. Sometimes when I was wrestling with an issue, a tough column about a hot topic, she advised me. Be serious about what you do. No foolishness. That was her message to many. In essence, her legacy is stand tall, don't compromise. She made us serious. She made us serious about ourselves with much pride. She was an institution builder. She knew how to build, how to grow and how to train. She talked often about the training ground and about building businesses, and cultural institutions.

The Grand Dame of Black Theater. . .

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Abena was a Who’s Who, having received top honors in her discipline at every turn. She was a pioneer. She started much; she was the reason that much started. She will long be remembered. She made Chicago a better place. She improved Black life, with exposure.

She was a culturist who touched lives. I am proud to have been affected by her very stern hand. She was unapologetic with an Afrocentric viewpoint.

Her life will be celebrated with a Memorial Service. Thursday, July 23 at Rev. Leon Finney's Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, 41st and King Drive at 7: 00 p.m. Viewing of the body is Tuesday, July 21 from noon to 8 pm. at Cage Memorial, 7651 South Jeffery Boulevard.

Filed under: Chicago

Tags: abena joan brown, ETA

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