The Pekin: Chicago’s First Black-Owned Theater

New Pekin Theatre, Count of no-account [date unknown]
The New Pekin Theater, Count of no-account, date unknown, Source: Historic Programs Digital Collection, Special Collections
On June 18, 1905, former saloon owner and policy king Robert T. Motts opened the first black-owned theater in Chicago. The Pekin, later The New Pekin following an extensive expansion, was the first theater to open that catered to black residents who had limited options for entertainment outlets in Chicago. Located at 2700 S. State Street, in the city's Black Belt, The Pekin was the only theater in the city that allowed blacks to sit wherever they wanted.  
The Pekin Theater, nicknamed "temple of music" by Motts, was a music and vaudeville theater that employed an all-black staff from the lowest positions to management, contrary to the ideas of the day that blacks had minimal theater management skills. Large enough to hold 1200 attendees, the famed theater was clean, innovative and modern, and was known for many successful shows such as The Man from 'Bam, The Mayor of Dixie, and The Husband
In 1908, with the decline of interest in vaudeville and rising popularity of motion pictures, The Pekin Theater experienced a downturn in popularity, but remained a potent force in black Chicago theater until Robert T. Motts' death in 1911. 
Though short-lived, The Pekin Theater's legacy remains as the first black theater company in Chicago. Created during a time of great adversity, the success of the Pekin demonstrated that blacks had talent for theater and business acumen as well, paving the way for the future of black theatrical establishments throughout the United States. 
For more on The Pekin Theater and the history of black Chicago theater, here are a few interesting reads. 

The Pekin

Musicologist Thomas Bauman's detailed account of the rise and fall of the famed Pekin Theater, includes a biography of its intrepid owner and manager Robert T. Motts, and a full repertoire of The Pekin Theater. 

Black Theater Is Black Life

Professors of theater and sociology, Harvey Young and Queen Meccasia Zabriskie respectively, team up in this detailed, chronological, and concise introduction to Chicago's black theater history from 1970 to 2010. 

The Regal Theater and Black Culture

The Regal Theater in Chicago was the largest entertainment venue ever constructed for a black community. African American Studies professor Clovis E. Semmes reveals the stark reality of running a black theater in the face of institutional inequality. 

Want to learn more about black theater? Check out the Black Ensemble Theater, ETA, Creative Arts Foundation and Kuumba Theater Company collections located in our Special Collections and Preservation Division and more recommended titles.