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A spirited group of Northwestern alumni, professors and current students, primarily from Communications and Theatre concentrations, gathered on Oct. 23 in a private room at the Celtic Knot to meet, mingle and learn about a new venture in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago: plans to create the Lillian Marcie Performing Arts Center as a place to showcase past, current and future contributions of live entertainment from across the black diaspora.
The inspiration and motivator-in-chief behind the idea of “the new Lincoln Center for black performing arts” is a Northwestern alumnus who grew up in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, Harry Lennix, now a well-known and well-respected film, television and stage actor.
Mr. Lennix’s parents instilled in him a love of the arts. He vividly remembers his mother, Lillian, taking him and his siblings to plays and musical performances throughout his childhood. As his mother aged and became too ill to move around easily, a beloved school teacher, family friend and mentor, Mrs. Marcella “Marcie” Gillie, stepped in to chaperone him. Both women influenced his life tremendously, and Mr. Lennix honors their legacies by naming the performing arts center Lillian Marcie after them.
As Mr. Lennix explained to the group, this center “is a long time coming” and a much needed spot for “culture and contribution” in an area of Chicago that has been overlooked for decades. He wants to inspire a “collective brain trust” of people who will help him establish a center where orchestral, theater, and dance companies will perform on one of two reconfigurable stages, a large space to seat 350 people and a smaller cabaret space for about 100 patrons. The smaller space is already slated to be the new permanent home of the renowned black repertory group, Congo Square Theatre Company.
Mr. Lennix envisions studios for recording music, television and movies; rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms and classrooms; a rooftop deck area with indoor and outdoor spaces; and a museum, the African American Museum of the Performing Arts (AAMPA).
The Center will be a place where artists and performers are proud to debut their work, a curated “epitome of excellence in the arts” for black culture. AAMPA will hold a digital collection of black performances for preservation, perpetuation, international access and scholarship. Perhaps Phase 2 of the project will include “a conservatory for the advancement of black cultural studies,” says Mr. Lennix.
Mr. Lennix has already met with Alderman Sophia Dorsey King (Chicago’s Fourth Ward) and received her support and guidance for the project. The location is convenient to Lake Shore Drive, I-94 and the South Loop in anticipation of crowds beyond Bronzeville attending performances, going out for meals and spending quality leisure time in the neighborhood.
Mr. Lennix acknowledged this is a huge undertaking, saying “This is so much bigger than my original dream.”
Over the past year or so he has been sharing this idea with friends of his from his Northwestern days. One of those, David Steckel, an executive with StrykerFusion Corporation, understood immediate what Mr. Lennix was trying to do and thought his company might have a role to play.
StrykerFusion is a “next generation technology company” that will assist with setting up a crowdfunding site to raise money for construction, hosting all of the digital assets for the museum and providing the Center’s technological needs.
The goals are to ensure that artists have sovereignty over their work, and to make the digital assets available on demand from anywhere in the world The details are still being sorted out, but StrykerFusion is committed to being part of the development project and supports its mission wholeheartedly.
Mr. Lennix is passionate about this project and its ability to “engender and empower a whole new generation of people.” He continued, “I am sick to death of relying on charity from black and white people to support black artists. We need a place of our own. My niece, Adé Williams, just graduated from the Curtis School of Music, but all of the job opportunities for her are out of town. I want her – and other talented kids like her – to be able to come home.”
Mr. Lennix is philosophical about the process. His mother had a favorite maxim, “to make a way out of no way.” It’s taken many years, but he is committed to making this performing arts center a reality, to make a way happen. His mother would be proud.