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Goodman Theatre Resident Director Chuck Smith reflects on Chicago’s evolving theater audiences

Director Chuck Smith during recent rehearsal for Chicago premiere David Mametís Race (January 14 ñ February 19 2012). Phoby Eric

Director Chuck Smith during a recent rehearsal for the Chicago premiere of David Mametís Race (January 14 ñ February 19, 2012). Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

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Updated: October 18, 2013 2:25PM

It seems fitting for me to direct “Pullman Porter Blues” on the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Taking place on the cusp of porter unionization in the 1930s, Cheryl L. West’s new play is both a Chicago story and a pivotal moment in history for the black community — that union and its leader, A. Phillip Randolph, laid the groundwork for the March that would happen more than two decades later. For me, this is a moment of reflection and of celebration: In the 20 years since my career with the Goodman began, Chicago has become a national leader in the production of black theater.

Today, there are four Chicago theater companies solely devoted to the production of black-authored plays: ETA Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT) and Congo Square. These, plus the black-authored productions featured regularly at the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Northlight, among others, put African-Americans center stage.

There was a time, however, when black theater only existed in the margins. It took the encouragement of my friend and playwright Theodore Ward for me to venture outside of the black theater community and to turn my attention to directing in “mainstream” theaters at a time when there were very few black directors. I’m proud to have directed a number of plays at the Goodman over the past 20 years that display a strong connection to my roots with this community, and that require audiences to respond to the black experience in America.

A career highlight for me came in 1997: directing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson at the Goodman. The play was part of his 10-play series that depicts the comic and tragic aspects of the black experience in the 20th century. It was seen by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Vice President Al Gore and Michael Jordan.

In 2004, I directed an all-black cast of “Proof,” and it left such an impression that people still insist to me that it’s a black play. More recently I directed David Mamet’s “Race,” about a law firm taking on a questionable rape case; Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” about a black maid and aspiring actress in 1930s Hollywood; and now Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues,” about three generations of rail porters in the 1930s.

These stories don’t just touch African-American lives — they touch American lives, period. It’s been an honor to serve the Chicago theater community and bring these provocative stories to our audiences outside of the fringes. I hope you’ll join me for the next 20 years.

Chuck Smith’s anniversary season at Goodman Theatre began in the spring with “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” and continues with “Pullman Porter Blues” (Sept. 14-Oct. 20). He also directs “Quark” at MPAACT, co-produced by Goodman Theatre, starting in January.

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