- The Pekin: The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater by Thomas Bauman
Surprisingly, Chicago’s Pekin Theatre—billed as “the first and only colored theatre in America” when it was founded in 1904—has received relatively little scholarly attention prior to Thomas Bauman’s book (xiii). Rather than start with “lamentations over the scholarly injustice of it all,” Bauman views this oversight as “an opportunity . . . an invitation to think in fresh ways about seemingly settled historical issues and practices” (xiii). It is with this invitation that Bauman launches a comprehensive survey of the Pekin’s development and its brief but important theatrical life. The book presents an overview of the institution using the limited archival materials still extant (not a single script from the Pekin’s repertoire appears to have survived), and draws on the work of theatre scholars, cultural historians, and musicologists, such as Thomas Riis, Lynn Abbott, Doug Seroff, James Hatch, and Errol Hill, among others.
Bauman follows the trajectory of the Pekin Theatre chronologically, dividing the six chapters into general eras of the theatre’s growth and its later decline. The [End Page 177] prologue focuses on the relationship between the criminal and political worlds of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Robert T. Motts—the son of a slave and initially a gambling saloon proprietor—was involved in the political and social weal of the South Side prior to his theatrical turn. Motts distanced himself from criminal activities by 1904, but used his ties to the Black Belt community to convert the saloon into the Pekin Theatre. Bauman often returns to these connections, demonstrating how the Pekin functioned within and reacted to both the local community and national performance scenes. For instance, Motts generously allowed benefit performances for local charities or amateur groups throughout most of his tenure. However, when a critic wrote a negative review or bemoaned a policy change, Motts was known to bar the offender. The Pekin sent shows to places like the Harlem Music Club and the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC. Motts also held matinees for the downtown performing community and invited touring companies as guests. He even hosted the Chicago company of Thomas Dixon’s notorious romanticized dramatization of the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman, in the summer of 1906. The Clansman would later become the basis for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
Despite the racist implications (and riots) that accompanied the performances of The Clansman nationwide, the project of racial uplift was central to the Pekin. Bauman asserts that Motts embraced a vision of racial progress wherein “the bustling urban North” was the “locus of black advancement,” which clearly departed from the views of Booker T. Washington (29). Motts capitalized on notions of respectability, marketing the Pekin as a “family resort.” Here, black audience members could sit wherever they liked: the house, the jobs, and the performances were for them. In addition, Bauman takes into consideration the use of dialect and blackface that playwright Jesse Shipp (and others) deployed, arguing that these racialized performances played a “familiar role at the Pekin” and were the “stock in trade of a comedic stage type delineating a particular stratum within the black social world in Chicago” (120). He supports this claim by pointing to the popularity of burlesques—especially burlesques of other black performers—and satires targeting the black community. Even when white artists and troupes began to appear on the Pekin’s stage, Motts consistently attempted to feature mostly black performers.
Bauman’s rigorous archival research demonstrates the breadth of the Pekin’s popular entertainments over its lifetime. Its management tried a variety of offerings over the years to cater to the black clientele seeking diversions along the corridor called “the Stroll” on State Street: vaudeville acts; new musical comedies presented by the stock company, which was dissolved and reconstituted several times; one-act comedies with interpolated popular music; road shows; moving pictures; farces; burlesques; and, after Mott’s death...