- The Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900–1967 by Amy Absher, and: The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater by Thomas Bauman
Chicago continues to steadfastly hold its place as one of the most important crucibles of black music in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century. Two new books, both published in 2014, grapple with and ultimately shore up the city’s legacy—albeit in very different ways. It may be misleading for me to suggest that Thomas Bauman’s The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater and Amy Absher’s The Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900–1967 take micro- and macroperspectives, respectively; both books are well researched and detail oriented in their ways. Bauman reconstructs the trajectory of a single institution over the course of its brief lifespan, while Absher works to capture the dramatic sweep of sociological and historic forces on black musicians during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet the books’ approaches complement one another: reading them together, one gets a sense of the ways in which diverse intraracial cultural politics swirl, collide, divide, and combine in spite of and in response to larger structural and systemic forces within a specific urban space.
Musicologist Thomas Bauman directs his prodigious research skills to reconstruct the rise and fall of a single (and singular) institution: Chicago’s first black-owned theater, the Pekin. Bauman quotes James Hatch’s 1989 article “Here Comes Everybody: Scholarship and Black Theater History” in the introduction as a way of outlining the challenge he undertook. According to Hatch, the four critical problems associated with researching African American theatrical history are lack of sources, lack of integrated theater history, a narrow definition of theater, and uneven chronological coverage. Indeed, “no scripts, sound recordings, or archival records from the Pekin have survived” (xxi). Through close examination of scarce program books and newspaper accounts, however, Bauman painstakingly re-creates a timeline of performances and offers a sense of the theater’s critical reception in black and white newspapers, an understanding of its financial challenges, and a grasp of the role it played within the community.
The Pekin is structured largely around the life and entrepreneurial urge of Robert T. Motts, the one-time gambler and saloon owner who founded the theater and served as its executive director until his death in 1911. Bauman’s prologue offers a fascinating account of the black gambling world through which Motts accumulated the financial and social capital to build the Pekin. Alongside figures such as Mushmouth Johnson and Poney Moore, Motts built an empire on policy rackets that depended on enforced partnerships with aldermen, police, and commissioners; such arrangements were part and parcel of daily life in black neighborhoods. By noting that Motts turned his entrepreneurial talents [End Page 398] from gambling to the project of racial community building (11), Bauman tacitly acknowledges that the nonelite who would seek to lift their communities had few opportunities to build the capacity to do so via “legitimate” means. Motts’s rich combination of idealism and shrewdness (16) built favor with south-side blacks, and in June 1904, with the support of community and theater connections, he turned his saloon at 2700 South State Street into a theater.
Motts’s goal was to build “a playhouse worthy of the name and a credit to the Negro race” (xv). The Pekin was to be a family resort and a temple of high-class vaudeville and music. Indeed, Motts’s institutional model elevated the Pekin above the black (and black-owned) theaters that would spring up in urban centers...