Opened in 1904 by professional gambler Robert Motts, Bronzeville’s Pekin Theater was said to be the first black-owned and operated theater in the United States. On June 17 at 7pm, the Pekin will briefly come back to life as an outdoor concert on the site where the theater once stood.
Presented by Illinois Humanities and Empty Bottle Presents, An Evening at the Pekin Theater will feature ragtime pianist and MacArthur “genius” grantee Reginald Robinson and his band playing music from the Pekin’s active era, which lasted until 1916. Empty Bottle is building a temporary stage on the now-vacant lot, on the northwest corner of 27th and State Streets. Other performers will be on hand to enact a scripted piece by playwright and poet McKenzie Chinn, directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce and created in consultation with City of Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson.
The 1,200-seat Pekin was the site of the first all-black show produced in Chicago, which opened on June 18, 1905. The theater offered musical comedies, dramas and revues; its house band, Joe Jordan and His Pekin Orchestra, was said to be equally capable of ragtime and opera. The stock company nurtured black talent including actor Charles Gilpin, who went on to play the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones on Broadway, and Flournoy Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, who later created the landmark black musical Shuffle Along.
An Evening at the Pekin Theater is free and open to the public.
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