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Abena Joan Brown, former head of eta Creative Arts Foundation, to be honored

4-5-05 ETA Creative Arts Foundati7558 S. South Chicago ave........President   Co-founder AbenJoan Brown auditorium (Nancy McKeever was out town)...........Rich

4-5-05 ETA Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago ave........President & Co-founder Abena Joan Brown in auditorium (Nancy McKeever was out of town)...........Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: November 9, 2011 12:33PM

Abena Joan Brown’s big day reminds me that I’ve neglected my first love.

On Saturday, the former president and CEO of the eta Creative Arts Foundation will be honored for her contribution to Chicago’s thriving black arts scene.

Brown stepped down in March, paving the way for the next generation of culturally inspired artists.

They have a tough act to follow. In 40 years, Brown took “eta” from being known as a black theater to one of the foremost cultural institutions in the city. And in 2005, eta purchased an entire city block from 75th to 76th Streets along South Chicago Avenue for future expansion.

“The creator does not let you see and know everything lying ahead,” Brown said in a telephone interview. “Because possibly if we really knew that, we wouldn’t even get started.”

I discovered the magic of theater when my father came home with tickets to “Bell, Book and Candle” that his boss had given him.

I can’t say with any certainty that I went to the theater with him. But to this day I see myself sitting in that darkened theater watching Eartha Kitt on a live stage.

That experience — imagined or real — gave me a deeper appreciation of life’s possibilities, which is something that Brown absolutely gets.

“I started taking dance lessons at 3 years old — not because my parents thought I was going to be a dancer,” she told me. “But because in my generation they believed that the arts and exposure to the arts would develop character. That was part of what the children did on Saturdays.”

Brown is one of the founding members of Chicago’s elite group of black institution builders. Others include poet Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press; the late Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, and the late Oscar Brown Jr., a celebrated singer, musician, poet and playwright.

When I consider how little people like Brown started out with and how much they accomplished, my jaw drops.

“We did a production of an Oscar Brown play as soon as we got into the building — before renovations,” Abena Brown told me. “People said they didn’t know a theater was here, but if Oscar is over here, they were going.”

The first engagement ran 47 performances, she said.

A native Chicagoan, Brown was the first in her family to attend college and to earn advanced degrees.

She was born into what was known as a “race” family — that is, into a family that taught their children that their efforts weren’t just about them, but about the advancement of the entire race and mankind.

“I wasn’t into institution-building per se in the early years, but the civil rights movement comes into play,” she said. “I’ve also traveled a great deal in the U.S., Africa and in the diaspora.”

Eta opened in 1971. Today it serves as a cultural anchor in an area where development has lagged far behind other parts of the city. Because of the economic downturn, Brown’s ambitious expansion plans have stalled.

But she is confident her successor will take eta and the concept of building cultural institutions to the next level.

“We are a culturally rich people, and a lot of the behavior we are now seeing is an aberration,” she said.

“We have got to lift up and celebrate ourselves. I believe if we get the cultural paradigm straight, we will be all right. It tells us where we have been, where we are and where we need to be going,” Brown said.

A variety of celebrities, including T’Keyah Crystal Keymah and Hill Harper, will be on hand to honor Brown on Saturday night at eta Square, 7558 S. South Chicago. For ticket information, call (773) 752-3955.

Obviously, eta has had many galas over the years. But this one is special.

In times when our challenges seem nearly insurmountable, people like Brown offer tangible proof that love really can conquer all.

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