Harry Lennix Set to Establish Black Cultural Center in Chicago

For more than 20 years, Harry Lennix — an actor best known for his roles in TV shows and film such as “The Blacklist,” “Dollhouse” and “Justice League” — has been an advisor for the Chicago-based Black theater company Congo Square Theatre. The company, which doesn’t have a permanent performance space, has struggled to find venues for shows, a situation Lennix says is all too common for many Black arts organizations.

“On two hands, you can count the number of Black theatre companies in the country that actually have bricks and mortar,” Lennix tells Variety. “Which is shocking, but true.”

The experience made Lennix wish that there was a center in Chicago that could act as a hub for Black artists in the city. And eventually, he decided to make that vision a reality.

On April 19, Lennix was awarded a $26 million grant by the state of Illinois to fund his proposed Lillian Marcie Center for the Performing Arts. Located on 4343 S. Cottage Grove Ave, in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, this center is intended to act as a performing arts space dedicated to Black artists and creators, with a museum that archives and spotlights Black performing artists throughout history.

According to Lennix, active development for the Lillian Marcie Center began didn’t start until 2018, when he partnered with David Wade to help begin efforts for the project. The two assembled a team which includes Keith Giles, a Chicago projects developer, and investor Mike Wordlaw to scout and find a location for the center.

Lennix hails from Chicago, having grown up in the South Side of the city as a child, and he spent several years working as an educator in the city’s public school system. He is immensely proud of his roots, referring to Chicago as “the home for Black culture.” The Lillian Marcie Center is named after two important women in his life: his mother Lillian, and Chicago public school principal Marcella Gillie, who acted as a mentor to Lennix during his time as a teacher. Lennix plans to heavily focus on community engagement in his approach to the center, including an apprenticeship program for students interested in theater and partnerships with public schools.

One of Lennix’s main hopes for the center is that it will help lead to a restoration in the overall Bronzeville neighborhood. He points to other centers of its kind, like the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, as examples of how these projects can cause revitalizations for surrounding businesses and communities. Lennix’s aim is that Bronzeville, a historical hotspot of nightclubs and theaters, will experience a similar effect.

“You can just see that the improvement of the neighborhood is almost sure to follow,” Lennix says. “And so I think that the quality of life, the vitality of the neighborhood, the inspiration to people who see it who live in that neighborhood, I think is is well studied, well documented … So I think we’re putting oxygen back into something which has been a cultural vacuum.”

He hopes the Lillian Marcie Center can act as a hub for Black artists in Chicago the same way Lincoln Center acts as a hub for New York culture.

“This is a kind of microcosm of that in a way, but also as big and as ambitious,” Lennix says. “Not as big a footprint but our aims and intentions are equally big. There should be we believe, a conservatory, a school where if you want to study the best of Black ballet and dance and so forth, why should you have to leave Chicago to do it?”

After the Center is built, Lennix plans to act as an ambassador for the center and help run its first years of operations, but intends to step back afterwards. Arts executive TaRon Patton has been tapped to serve as the center’s executive director, with Dwain Perry serving as artistic director. Terrence Carey will serve as the director of the museum, named the African American Museum of Performing Arts. Congo Square Theatre Company is already slated to be one of the companies that will use the center as a performance home.

“The idea is that you hire a team of people who can manage it, who can design it, who can build it, who can run it,” Lennix says.

Although the $26 million that Lennix received from the state of Illinois has been a great start, it still isn’t anywhere near the end goal for funding the project. The money, which will go towards facilities such as rehearsal space, office space, restaurants and artist housing, is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 million he anticipates the center will need for the build-out, which is slated to begin in September.

Currently, Lennix is working on launching a capitol campaign with Chicago-based Campbell and Company. He’s also looking for individual support and philanthropy to help raise the funds necessary to make his project a reality.

“We’re going to need more money, and I hope to be able to continue to rely on on public support,” Lennix says. “We will be responsible stewards of the public trust. This is not for our personal benefit. This is for the benefit of the whole wide world, but starting at home.”