Jackie Taylor USITT 2019 KEYNOTE ADDRESS: "You can do it. No matter whatever the hell it is, you can do it.".
Jackie Taylor: Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. That ain't going to work, y'all. I said, let the church say, "Amen."
Audience, louder: Amen!
Jackie Taylor: All right, all right. That's a little better, that's a little better. First of all, I want to thank USITT. Lord have mercy. This is a big organization. When they asked me to come, I looked them up. I said, "Oh, this is good. I like this."
So, I'm going to start off with a little story. My story is about growing up in Cabrini in Chicago. Some people called it one of the worst housing projects in the world and one of the poorest [areas] in the world. I heard that on TV, that we were very poor. I realized they were talking about where I lived, and I said, "Ma, they called us poor." She says, "So damn what? Just 'cause they say it don't mean it's true." She said, "We just don't have no money, but we ain't poor."
When we first moved into Cabrini, it was a shock because it was big: 19-story buildings, 2,000 kids playing in the playground, and me and my little brother; we were six and seven. He was six, I was seven, and we went outside for the first time to play in the playground. We had never seen a playground before, and there's about 2,000 kids out there. And we thought, "Wow! This is the greatest thing in the world."
And we went into the playground, and the kids say, "Oh look, newbies. Let's go kick they ass." And me and my little brother's like, "Oh! What! We just moved here!" We started running, 'cause there's a lot of them damn kids. And we ran up, we ran, we got to our building, we got to our apartment, and my mother had locked the door. We knocked, knocked, "Ma, Ma, Ma! Let us in! Let us in!"
And she had the latch on the door, and she opened it up, and she said, "What you want?"
I said, "Ma, all these kids out here. They're going to kill us. They said... they said they going to beat us up. They said..."
She said, "Handle it." Click.
So, I start that story off by letting you know the title of my speech today. The title is, "You can do it. No matter whatever the hell it is. You can do it." And, I say that because it's true. No matter who we are, no matter how much money we have or we don't have, no matter the problems that we all have to face in our lives--and Lord knows they got a lot of problems--you can do it. A prime example is my building of the Black Ensemble Theater. We built the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center in 2011. It seems like yesterday.
I started out in film, and my first movie was called Cooley High. Anybody ever heard of Cooley High before? (Audience applause.) Oh! Yay! Well, I've played the fine boy's--Lawrence Hilton Jacobs--I played his girlfriend. (He could really kiss by the way; it was nice.)
That propelled me into an international Hollywood career. I thought all the films were going to be as positive, with a positive message like Cooley High: Where "violence is ignorant" and "Dream your dreams. You can be whatever you want to be."
I was very naive, and I thought, "this is where I'm going. I'm going into this kind of field, and I'm going to make a difference." Make a difference because I came from a neighborhood where you couldn't go past four blocks without being called "a little nigger" at nine years old. Or, you couldn't go four blocks the other way without being called something even worse. Or, you couldn't go past four blocks the other way without getting beat up, no matter if you were nine, 10, seven, it just didn't matter.
So, I thought, "Man, I'm in an industry where I'm gonna make a difference." And I thought my next film was going to be something very positive and uplifting cause that's what I just came from.
And they told me, "Uh, no, we don't do those kinds of films."
They said, "Shut up." "Don't ask for that." "Read your scripts." And, "People don't believe that the kind of black people that you say exists; they believe that you all are all on welfare, you all are all gang bangers and coke dealers and so forth and so on."
I said, "But, that's not the reality. That's not even the reality in the neighborhood that I grew up in. Yes, there are some people like that, but we're not all like that. And you're painting a picture to the world that we are, and that's wrong."
And they said, "Shut up. We don't want to hear that. We not about creating reality. We about making money."
And at that time, to be a little African American young lady in the film industry with what they called a cattle call contract, you were making what was then a whole lot of money. And I called up my father, and I said, "Daddy, they want me to play all these roles that I don't want to play."
And he said, "Well, bring your ass back home." He said, "You don't have to do anything that you don't want to do no matter what the cause may be. So, you won't get money that way. Maybe you'll get money another way." He said, "But never let money get in your way. Never let it stop you."
So, I came back, and I decided that I was going to do something about the racism, and that's when I created the Black Ensemble Theater with the mission to eradicate racism. Lord have mercy. Y'all should've heard what the people said: "What?"
I would go to the front desk. "Hello, I'm Jackie Taylor and I have built a theatre. I have created a theatre. The mission of the theatre is to eradicate racism."
"Oh, child, really? That's impossible. Why don't you save... why don't you go after something that is plausible to the community, like: Build bridges. Bring people together. Offer communication and understanding to the world?"
I said, "No,--you." (Fill in the blank!) I am going to build a theatre with the mission to eradicate racism because it's my belief that "the arts--if it's gonna happen anywhere--it's gonna happen in the arts" because the arts, from the beginning of time, the arts were our communicator. They are our history. They help us to understand who we are, why we are, where we are, and where we're going to go.
So, I said, "No, I am going to keep my mission, and my mission is to eradicate racism. And if you don't like it, you can kiss my fill in the blank."
That was 43 years ago. Now, the Black Ensemble Theater is 43 years old. We have our own building. It's called the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center. It is a 55,000-square-foot theatre. It cost us $20 million to build.
People said, "How did you do that? How did you raise $20 million?" We were a small company. Our budget was $300,000, and when I took it to my board and said, "I want to build a theatre, and it's going to cost us $20 million to own our own company."
And they said, "Oh, okay, that's nice. But no. We're not going... We can't... We're too small."
So, I said, "Okay." I fired 'em.
My lawyer said, "Oh, Jackie, they're the Board of Directors. You can't do that. You can't fire your Board."
I said, "I done already wrote the letters, I'm sorry. I didn't know I couldn't do that."
So, I got a Board behind me that, when I told them the dream, they didn't look at me crazy. They didn't look at me and say we couldn't do it. They looked at me and said, "Okay, let's go." And we raised $20 million because the Black Ensemble Theater needed a home.
I looked at the theatre and I said, "Okay, this is a start," because our mission is to eradicate racism, and we can't just do it inside the theatre--we have to do it outside the theatre also.
So, I decided, "Okay, we're going to build a village." The name of this village is called Free To Be. It has an education center. It has a performance center, it has a theatre technology center, it has a restaurant, it has a cafe, and it has places in all the buildings where, if you want to expound or explode or talk to the community or give your opinion about what's going on in the world, you can--because we need to talk to each other. And the cost of the village... when I told my board the cost of the village, which to start with the base, is $50 million.
I looked at them, I said, "Okay." I told them about my first Board, and I said, "Okay, now that I've told you this story, what you think?"
And they said, "Oh, well, yes, Jackie, we can do this!"
So, we built up the Board. We went to the city. We just got a new governor. We're going to have the first black female mayor of Chicago. And, I've called both of them. So, whoever wins, they know I'm going to need their support because we are going to build this village.
We now own three of the properties, and we have one more property to go before we will have all of the properties that will be part of the village. And once we raise that $50 million, then we have to raise another $50 million to operate the buildings, to operate the programming.
And I know you might think that that's a lot of money, but, when you grow up with no money, money doesn't mean anything, really. To me, in the world, there are gazillions--not even monies that we can even fathom in our head--that people play with all the time. That's how we get our presidents. Oh, did I say that?
Anyway, so there are no boundaries unless you see and put the boundaries in front of you. I figure with all the money in the world, $100 million is just a drop in the bucket, and somebody got it. So, I'm going to find how many somebodies that I possibly can, and say, "Could you give me some money please?" I just need whatever they're worth. If they're worth $10, I'm going to say, "Could you please give me $10?" If they're worth $10 million, I'm going to say, "Could you please me $10 million?" And I will love you forever whether it's $10 or $10 million.
So, what I'm saying to you today, really, what I want to really get across and to leave you with is the picture of me and my little brother running with fright because that's what life is.
Life is a scary... mess, and it's not easy.
It's difficult, but we all have dreams. We all have goals. We all have desires. That's why we need to eliminate racism and eradicate it because it separates us in such a way that we cannot give and receive from each other, and that's how we exist on this earth. That's how we're supposed to exist, by sharing resources, by celebrating our differences, by respecting each other as human beings--understanding that no matter what your background is, we all do the same damn thing when we get up in the morning and when we go to sleep at night. We're all basically, no matter what our background and culture is, we are all the same. We want love. We want food. We want to put some clothes on our ass. We have to sleep. We must eat. We must drink. Or, we die. And eventually, one day, we'll join that spirit world, and then we'll really understand how much more alike we are than we are different.
I'm proud to say that Black Ensemble Theater is the most diverse theatre company in the country. Our audiences are everything because what they see onstage is no matter their race, their creed, their color, they see themselves, just like I can stand up here today, a young African--well, I ain't so young no more. I used to be, but what the hell? In my mind and my heart, age ain't none but a number, but--an African American woman able to relate, able to share, able to feel. You're able to feel me. I'm able to feel you. That's what our audiences see, and that's what we need to embrace around the world and especially within our communities.
So, I'm going to go back to that little picture of me and my little brother running our asses off, scared to death, getting up to the door, knocking on it, and my mother peeking out and going, "Can I help you?"
"Mom, the kids! They be hurting us! They going to beat us up. There's about 20 or 30 of them. What are we going to do?"
"Handle it." Click.
So, I'm going to say to you all today: No matter your dreams. No matter what's in your way. No matter what they tell you cannot do. No matter what limitations they might put on you, there are none. And when you come up against it, handle it.