Just after the show’s beginning, Jackie Taylor asks the crowd what the world needs. In unison, many voices shout back, “Love!”. And when do we need it? “Now!” Love is the theme in Black Ensemble’s latest production, From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now), a three-day engagement that centers around loving one another and putting away with senseless violence and racism. Wasting no time getting to the point, Taylor begins the program with an inspired version of the self-explanatory titled “No Matter What Race”, a song that sets the tone for what is to follow.
For those unfamiliar with Jackie Taylor and her contributions to the Chicago Theatre community, she is the Founder and Executive Director of the Black Ensemble Theater, producing, writing and directing in nearly all its presentations. Prior to her work with Black Ensemble, Taylor, a theatre grad from Loyola University, made her mark on the Chicago stage where she performed at many venues including The Goodman Theater and Victory Gardens Theater. The talented actress also made her presence known in film and television as she was featured in 1976’s Cooley High and later appeared in Barber Shop II, Losing Isiah, Chiraq, Early Edition and The Father Clements Story among several others.
From Jackie with Love is a production from the heart. Backed up by Black Ensemble’s accomplished band featuring Musical Director Robert Reddrick on drums, Taylors swoops into a collection of songs that are sure to pull the heartstrings of most, each written by hers truly. Throughout the show, Taylor breaks from music giving the audience a peek at her personal life be it by short stories or in the performance of monologues that were meaningful to her from such as A Raisin in the Sun, a play she declares as her “favorite of all time” written by Lorraine Hansberry.
Taylor reminisces about her time as a teacher in the Chicago Public School system, her childhood while living in Cabrini Green and growing up thinking her mother did not love her. She talks passionately about her persistence in moving forward with Black Ensemble even when its outcome seemed bleakest.
“I am fortunate enough to have spent my life teaching in Chicago Public Schools, at colleges like Loyola University and Roosevelt University and in numerous, numerous programs as an artist teacher,” says Taylor. “Along the way, I created Black Ensemble Theater, raised a wonderfully intelligent daughter and now have the best grandson in the whole wide world.”
Taylor is accompanied on stage by Black Ensemble veterans Rhonda Preston, David Simmons and Yahdinah Udeen who serve as back up vocalists for Taylor and offer friendly banter back and forth. Each is showcased in their own featured number, Preston stunning the crowd with a vocal demonstration for the books in “A Mother’s Love” and Udeen performing an emotionally-charged rendition of “Mother’s Lament”, a moving song that Taylor could write a play about on its own. Simmons closes the second of three sets with the lively number “Happy Ending”. Each are again brought to the forefront towards the end of the show in a piece that has each one, including Taylor, breaking out dance moves.
All songs performed in From Jackie with Love are written by Jackie Taylor, a couple borrowed from past Black Ensemble productions. As Simmons states about the production, “The show is called From Jackie with Love because it really is from Jackie – all of it – and with tons of love.”
It’s easy to see Taylor’s high level of comfort on stage whether it be singing, dancing, acting, interacting with the audience or even playing guitar – the same one her mother bought for her as a child. The stage is her playground, but more so a tool to bring people together.
“Through the hundreds of plays that I have produced, written and directed – I never lost my passion for performing,” says Taylor on taking the stage once again. It’s clear the passion is still there along with the talent as she still performs with command.
From Jackie with Love is a nice way to meet the woman behind Black Ensemble, bringing with it a positive message in that life is too short to waste time hating when we can be loving each other. It’s a simple message but powerful as she eludes to the root of the issue being that of money and greed also recognizing the steps that are taken to program our children towards violence at such a young age. A warm tribute is made to the many young black men who have lost their lives – just for being black. Taylor’s message is delivered ever so profoundly in this production that is also sure to entertain with its vast variety of touching songs.
From Jackie with Love (What the World Needs Now) is being performed at The Black Ensemble Theater only for a limited time. For tickets and schedule information click here.
Black Ensemble Theater CEO/Artistic Director Jackie Taylor has yet again brought a story to the forefront that is as entertaining as it is remarkable, this one written by Associate Director Rueben Echoles. Their current production, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers”, is just the latest at Black Ensemble Theater that relives an iconic piece of history that, to some, is lesser known than it should be. If you are not already familiar with the Nicholas Brothers, you will be after this energetic account that is both engaging and visually stimulating.
Long before Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Justin Timberlake, Alvin Ailey, James Brown, Bruno Mars and John Travolta made their mark in the industry, Harold and Fayard Nicholas blazed a trail to which our just mentioned dance heroes would later be greatly influenced and heavily benefit. Cited as the greatest dance team in the 1930’s and 1940’s, The Nicholas Brothers (formerly called The Nicholas Kids) were revolutionaries, creating some of the most complicated and eye-popping routines to date. Best described as high-flying and dynamic, their inventive dance sequences regularly invoked enthusiastic (and fearful) “oohs” and “aahs” from audiences across the world.
“My Brother’s Keeper” is the captivating story of The Nicholas Brothers’ rise to fame, but it is also the story of love, discipline, hardships and the unbreakable bond between two African American brothers that were not allowed to patronize the clubs in which they performed during their heyday.
The play is a timeline that follows the brothers from their childhood, to their stardom, to their marriages and through their deaths – Harold in 2000 and Fayard in 2006. We quickly see and are touched by the strong support the two are given by their parents, college-educated musicians that had once performed in their own act. Though never receiving formal dance training outside of his father’s instruction (he was a drummer), Fayard became something of a dance prodigy, eventually teaching his younger siblings. The story flows like a series of waves with its ups and downs, never in danger becoming stagnant.
Rueben Echoles not only finely directs and choreographs this dazzling musical, he also suits up for the role of younger brother, Harold. Teamed with Rashawn Thompson as Fayard, the two recreate the magic of The Nicholas Brothers with a slew of heart-stopping tap dancing routines that accurately capture the spirit of the famed duo. Shari Anderson plays the brother’s ever-caring mother, Viola, lighting up the stage herself, particularly in her heartfelt rendition of “Master Give Me Strength”. The boys’ father, Ulysses, is warmly played by Dwight Neal while Jessica Seals is strong as little sister, Geri.
As the show opens, we are taken inside a 1940’s-ish jazz club, at one point becoming the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The talented musicians play behind band stands on a stage that has several tiers to allow the singers and dancers ample room to perform. Each performer is staged in glitzy costumes of the period, creating an immediate “Wow” factor.
Musically, this production contains just about everything one could hope for - including a finale that will take one's breath away. Electrifying tap dancing numbers and exceptional vocal performances are worked into a driving soundtrack that includes favorites such as Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, Cole Porter’s “From This Movement On”, mixed in with several beautiful pieces created for the show by Rueben Echoles. We also get a taste of Cab Calloway, whose commanding stage entrance, while donned in his trademark white suit, brings with him the excitement of an era that was ever so rich in music and originality. Vincent Jordan crushes it as Calloway, “Hidee-hidee-hidee-ho-ing” along with the crowd throughout his lively version of “Minnie the Moocher”. The polished performances by cast members in this show are endless, but make no mistake – Rueben Echoles and Rashawn Thomas are on a tier of their own, their vocal contributions, fancy footwork and “stunt dancing” as I would call it, just extraordinary.
Though centered around the bond between The Nicholas Brothers and their plight to greatness, one story line in the show that some might find particularly interesting is that of Harold’s marriage to Dorothy Dandridge and the many challenges that take place between the two. A relationship sometimes blissful, but often turbulent, we feel a strong sense of love as much as we do regret. The show also delves into Dandridge’s life as a celebrity and the racial obstacles she had to overcome. Taylay Thomas is absolutely stunning as Dandridge and sings the part flawlessly.
In “My Brother’s Keeper”, Jackie Wilson gives us another history lesson that so well amalgamates importance with entertainment. Wilson has brought several fine works to Black Ensemble Theater in the past including “The Jackie Wilson Story”, “Marvin Gaye Story”, “The Other Cinderella” and “Dynamite Divas”. Jackie Taylor has always had a propensity to bring music-filled productions to Black Ensemble, once profoundly citing music as a tool that can cross cultural barriers and bring people together in their mission to eradicate racism. Perhaps we need that now more than ever. Theater goers will have the chance to see Taylor sing and dance during a three-day engagement March 6th-8th in “From Jackie with Love”, a work that embraces her upbringing in Cabrini Green and her dealings with a dysfunctional family life.
Recommended as show the entire family can enjoy, “My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers” is being performed at Black Ensemble Theater through March 26th. For tickets and/or more show information, click here.
Black Ensemble has a fun-packed season ahead that includes the productions “Black Pearl: The Josephine Baker Story” and “Sammy: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.”.
Black Ensemble Theater does it again, and by that I mean provides a thoroughly engaging and inspirational experience, this time with their latest production Those Sensational Soulful 60’s. Beautifully written and directed by the talented Jackie Taylor, Soulful 60’s takes a peek at the heyday of Motown music featuring music from Otis Redding, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, The Supremes, The Four Tops and many more. Currently running in repertory with Doo Wop Shoo Bop (also written by Taylor but this one in collaboration with Jimmy Tillman), Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is a dance-in-your-seat musical treat that is uplifting as it is nostalgic.
It is Black Ensemble Theater’s 40th anniversary and there is little question as to why they have succeeded for so long. Churning out one memorable production after another, Soulful 60’s is yet another triumph for this ultra-talented theatre company. Black Ensemble has always had a gift of not just bringing relevant music back to the forefront (and also writing worthy originals), but also delivering it in a way that captures its true essence, giving audience members the chance to feel the way they did when they first discovered these golden classics. Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is no different.
A truly gifted cast helps in bringing the iconic sixties back to life. Melanie McCullough, Shari Anderson, Kylah Frye and Jessica Seals round up the inspiring group of women contributing to this production while David Simmons, Kenny Davis, Rashawn Thompson, Theo Huff and Kyle Smith take on the male vocals with the power and passion to which Otis Redding himself would be pleased. The vocal additions by each performing member cannot be compliment enough. Of course, the other half of the fun is watching the performers move – and move they do. Well-choreographed and well-executed, we are treated to several high energy dance routines, combining a rawness and precision that is thoroughly entertaining to watch, and gives one the feeling that they could easily be sitting in on a Four Tops concert in 1963.
With “soul” as the production’s focal point, the ensemble even succeeds at honoring standard crooners Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, explaining they should be included due to the soulful nature of some of their material. Even a soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is performed – as Patti LaBelle!
Kyle Smith starts the show off with a heartfelt reminiscence on Same Cooke – yep, a Chicagoan – and though he died at just thirty-three-years-young, left us with such influential songs such as “Chain Gang”, “Twisting the Night Away” and “You Send Me”. As the show progresses cast members point out interesting factoids about each artist to whom they pay homage. Touching on so many individuals that helped shape music as we know if today, the show is an apropos tribute to a magical and persuasive time in music history.
Standing ovations frequent the show after several numbers and they are well-deserved. It is apparent the cast members are having as much fun as the audience is having watching them, which adds a genuineness that cannot be manufactured. The songs are certain crowd pleasers with a collection that includes such hits as “Try A Little Tenderness”, “Feel Good”, Mack the Knife”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Higher and Higher”, each and every performer making their mark on many different occasions each time they uniquely honor a soul icon. With many wardrobe changes to highlight each moment, the dazzling costumes and wigs used are not only stunning, they depict the era accurately.
Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is not only musically entertaining, it is also funny, as writer Jackie Taylor skillfully plant bits of humor throughout the show, including a happy-go-lucky Stevie Wonder being escorted back to his place on stage and a handful of sassy one-liners exchanges.
Finely-tuned and rich in both quality and quantity, the family-friendly production of Those Sensational Soulful 60’s is being performed at Black Ensemble Theatre, located at 4450 N. Clark Street, through March 19th. This is a show that will not just have you toe-tapping and clapping from beginning to end, it also serves as a valuable lesson in music history. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.BlackEnsembletheater.org.
Here is a theater event that is so rich you cannot be disappointed. Anyone who attends Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women in Soul will be richly rewarded by the experience. In fact, it is so good, I would say run, don't walk, to the Black Ensemble theater to see it. (It runs through January 24.)
The premise of the play is self-admittedly thin: African-American multi-billionaire Mr. Maurice (Rueben D. Echoles, who directs, choreographs and designed costumes) has paid $2.5 million to each of four grande dames of soul - Nancy Wilson (Rhonda Preston), Gladys Knight (Rashada Dawan), Roberta Flack (Melanie McCullough), and Aretha Franklin (Shari Addison, a real show-stealer) - who are to spend the day preparing for and then performing in a television special.
Why just these four? Well, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Tina Turner were considered - but schedule conflicts kept them away. Besides, these four personalities are probably the only compatible mix, as we discover in the course of the show.
Why put on such a show? Mr. Maurice, who claims to have earned his wealth through his inventions (e-mail, texting, touch-screens, and Botox!), wants to celebrate the musical accomplishment of these remarkable singers.
These actresses' divas, as personified by these exceptional performers, capture not just the singing style, but also the personalities of their real-life counterparts. And they, too, are mystified by Mr. Maurice's circumstances and motive. "A black billionaire we've never heard of?"
While the set-up is ridiculous, the music, and the performers, are anything but. In his performance as Mr. Maurice, Rueben Echoles sets the stage with such an abundance of energy, that he truly casts a spell across the audience, forcing the room into a complete suspension of disbelief. That is theater! (And I don't say that lightly, after four decades in the audience.)
Though well paid, these divas - in their 70's - need to be coaxed to sing at first. An extra $50,000 finally breaks the ice, and Gladys Knight lets loose with "I've Got to Use My Imagination," her 1973 hit with the Pips. This offers an inkling of what is to come: Rashada Dawan captures that teary edge to Gladys Knight's voice throughout the night, and replicates the original convincingly - with the added power of being there live.
Now that the audience knows what to listen for, the next plot turn packs a punch using the Assimilator, a kind of holographic transporter used to call up greats of the past. First a phantasm of Billie Holiday alights on the stage and performs, really channels, Holiday's "God Bless the Child" - followed by almost equally powerful impersonations of Dinah Washington ("The Bitter Earth") and Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddam.")
As Mr. Maurice convinces each Diva to sing - beginning with first hits, and other career high points - the other three sing back-up. Music fills the 299-seat stage for what turns out to be a very short 2-1/2 hour run.
While each of these leading ladies is a powerful performer, and ably capture the singing style and phrasing of their diva, it is Shari Addison who most often seizes control of the stage - befitting her role as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. As the most familiar personality, Franklin gives Addison more to work with. But in McCullough's Flack singing "Killing Me Softly;" or in Preston's Wilson doing the signature "Guess Who I Saw Today," to cite two examples, the stage, and the listeners, belong to those performers.
There are also live performances or video tributes to many other notables - Chaka Khan, Mary Wells, Patti Labelle - the list goes on. Beyonce Knowles also crashes the event, in person, asking why she isn't included in the diva pack, earning a dismissive retort from Aretha: "Do you think they will be singing 'Single Ladies' in 20 years? She also tells Beyonce, "We love your music, at least some of it."
With a rich supporting cast that includes Mr. Maurice's technicians Donald Craig Manuel (as Hubert) and Kyle Smith (as Youngblood), Dynamite Divas thrives on its six-man, all-star band: music director Robert Reddrick on drums, Justin Dillard on keyboard, Mark Miller on bass, Gary Baker on guitar, Dudley Owens on woodwinds, and Bill McFarland on trombone. These guys were versatile and solid as they ran through the years and genre of the divas. Backing Rhonda Preston's Nancy Wilson on "Guess Who I Saw," the performance was "live recording" quality.
Dynamite Divas: A Tribute to Women of Soul at the Black Ensemble Theater comes very highly recommended.
A dazzling high-energy jukebox musical with history and astonishing talent, Black Ensemble Theatre's “Men of Soul” is sure to be a smash-hit! Brimming with electrifying artistry, the show brings to mind another long-running Chicago musical favorite “Million Dollar Quartet”, which features an array of 1950’s icons. “Men of Soul” shares the delicious romp through iconic American music history, featuring stunning replications of some of our most beloved performers and songwriters through virtuosic performances and upbeat entertainment!
“Men of Soul” celebrates the passion and power of musicians who triumphed over personal and social struggles to achieve success through song. Featuring a hilarious, spot-on, rousing rendition of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”, an incredibly energetic performance by Kyle Smith as Prince with “Purple Rain”, and including singing so remarkably similar to the original artist Ray Charles that I thought “Georgia On My Mind” was lip-synced! Dancing as only James Brown can in “Sex Machine”, crooning “On the Wings of Love” and “A Whole New World”, and rocking away to Billy Joel’s “My Life” and a medley of Bill Withers favorites such as “Lean on Me” and the unforgettable “Ain’t No Sunshine”, makes “Men of Soul” a summer performance to enjoy and remember!
I was especially impressed by the director and writer of “Men of Soul”, Daryl D Brooks. Seamless transitions, exciting lighting displays that incorporated the entire audience, and impeccable casting and musical direction brings this hilarious, high energy show to the pinnacle of success! Associate Director of Black Ensemble Theater, I look forward to the entertainment Mr. Brooks will bring the Chicago community in the future!
“Men of Soul” is the perfect summer show to bring friends and family to see, playing all through the month of August! Tickets can be found at www.blackensemble.org or by calling (773) 769-4451, with discounts for students, seniors and groups. Valet parking available.
Though Jackie Robinson is heralded as the first African-American baseball player to participate in the Major Leagues, more than a half of century earlier Moses Fleetwood Walker challenged the color barriers by integrating the game of professional baseball in the year 1884 when the Toledo Blue Stocking were admitted into the league.
As James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues puts it, "Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."
Moses Fleetwood Walker was much more than a baseball player. He was an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author and a dedicated family man who achieved a wealth that was very uncommon for African-American men at such a time. Though that is interesting enough in itself, The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is the story of a black man put on trial for murder when most were still met by lynch mobs for their alleged crimes – especially to a white man. “Fleet” as he was frequently called by friends and family, was accused of stabbing a white man to death during an altercation outside a tavern. Alleging he was confronted and threatened by a mob of angry white men, he claimed has actions were in self-defense. Of course, the other side has a completely different story to tell and we are soon emerged in the trial of the decade that takes place in Syracuse, New York and is manned by an all white jury.
Playwright Ervin Gardner is able to use actual court transcripts to bring this remarkable story to life. And though some of the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges in places, the story is compelling enough to keep us on our toes. The direction by Jackie Taylor is strong and really capitalizes on key moments while Nick Ferrin, as Fleetwood Walker’s sharp-as-a-tack defense attorney, puts on a brilliant performance displaying a wit, passion and even charm, characteristic of the hero we can’t help but cheer for.
In the Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker we get a glimpse of late nineteenth century racial tensions and see both liberal and racist views. In this powerful courtroom drama we also get a rich lesson in humankind as the play goes beyond the color of one’s skin and identifies people as individuals.
After hosting a handful of very well done musicals (“One Hit Wonders”, “The Marvelettes”), it is still a nice change of pace to see The Black Ensemble Theater go back to the biography drama though the house band provides a nice touch adding the perfect, mood enhancing background music.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker is not just engaging throughout, it is also an important story in our rich American history that most probably have never even heard. Playing at The Black Ensemble Theater through March 15th, this is a show to keep on your radar. The Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark Street in Chicago. For tickets and/or more information call (773) 769-4451 or visit www.BlackEnsembleTheater.org.
*Photo - Nick Ferrin (Harrison Hoyt), Casey Hayes (A.C. Hancock), Andre Teamer (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Leslie Collins (Arabella Walker)
In what could be the sleeper theatre smash of the summer, One Hit Wonders has just about all the ingredients a show would need to have the staying power for an extended run. And Chicago theatre fans should hope that to be the case, as this is a production that can be enjoyed over and over again. Finely directed by Daryl D. Brooks, the audience is thrust into the middle of a hilarious play, a live concert and even a dance party that spreads like wildfire from stage to seats close up through farther back. Sitting high above the set, a rockin’ live band that is often incorporated into the show’s storyline, is led by musical director and drummer, Robert Reddrick. It’s only a matter of moments that one realizes this band can play with the best of them.
The story revolves around a show that is being put together based on popular R&B songs by artists that have, after releasing a successful hit, for the most part, vanished from the music scene never to recapture such fame and popularity again. In fact, though the songs played in One Hit Wonders were recognized immediately, it would be a challenge to know who the artist that created it. We are taken from the ground floor of this production (also called One Hit Wonders) to, as expected, a big finale full of flash and fervent celebration. In between there are many bumps in the road and several rotating mini plots that keep the story flowing ever so smoothly. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments and an arsenal of great R&B music delivered to the audience in rapid succession.
Each of the cast members are very accomplished singers and get their chance to show it in their own solo numbers and even in the beautiful harmonies heard in the background. Songs such as “I Will Survive”, “Ring My Bell”, “It’s Raining Men” and even a lively version of “Da Butt” by Mark J.P. Hood incite spontaneous cheers from the crowd throughout, and deservedly so considering their polished and wholehearted performances.
One Hit Wonders is a feel good story that is power-packed and bursting with a bevy of enjoyable performances. Perhaps R&B’s answer to Million Dollar Quartet, this is a show that truly delivers in every facet and will have the toes tapping and the hands involuntarily slapping the thighs to the beat.
One Hit Wonders is playing at Black Ensemble Theater through June 29th. Black Ensemble Theater is located at 4450 N Clark and tickets are just $55-$65 depending on the show date. For more show information visit www.blackensemble.org or call 773-769-4451.
*photo - (from left) Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Kelvin Roston Jr.
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