REVIEW: My Brother’s Keeper (Black Ensemble Theater)

BET’s talented tappers pay tribute to the legendary Nicholas Brothers

 

My Brother's Keeper - CAST

 
Black Ensemble Theater, Uptown, presents
 
My Brother’s Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers
 
By Rueben D. Echoles
Directed by
Jackie Taylor
BE Theater, 4520 N. Beacon
(map)
Through May 16 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Nicholas Brothers were, if not the best known, simply the best dance team of the 20th century. With astonishing splits, seemingly effortless leaps and fabulous footwork, the brothers tapped their way through scores of famous nightclubs, a half dozen motion pictures and performances before nine presidents of the United States s Keeper - Jessica Moore, Kylah Frye, Carrieand several crowned heads of Europe, in a career that spanned nearly seven decades.

Black Ensemble Theater’s world premiere biographical tribute, My Brother’s Keeper, follows the company’s familiar documentary/revue style, tracing the brothers from childhood to death with a straightforward narrative penned by Rueben D. Echoles.

What it lacks in dramatic tension and stirring dialogue, the show more than makes up for in beautifully executed music and dance numbers, arranged by Thomas ‘Tom Tom 84’ Washington and choreographed by Echoles. Drummer and Musical Director Robert Reddrick leads a swinging eight-piece jazz band, featuring Washington on horns, Mark Moultrup on keyboards, Herb Walker on guitar, Tracey Anita Baker on bass, Bill McFarland on trombone, Hank Ford on sax and Paul Howard on trumpet.

Echoles’ choreography streamlines famous Nicholas Brothers routines, including a brief homage to the legendary leapfrogging, stair-step splits from the 1943 film Stormy Weather. The buttery-voiced Rashawn Thompson and elastic Echoles portray Fayard and Harold Nicholas with huge talent on all levels — as actors, singers and dancers. You rarely see performances like this nowadays. While they aren’t the incomparable Nicholas Brothers — no one could be — they give us as close a re-creation as you’re likely to see.

s Keeper - Ruben Echoles, Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson s Keeper - RaShawn Thompson, Ruben Echoles 2
My Brother's Keeper - Dawn Mitchell My Brother's Keeper - RaShawn Thompson My Brother's Keeper - Melanie McCullough

The sons of drummer and band leader Ulysses Nicholas (a sensitive performance by Donald Barnes) and his pianist wife, Viola (sweetly played by Dawn Bless), the Nicholas boys grew up in the wings of the vaudeville stage where their parents performed, watching the likes of singers such as Big Maybelle (as whom Rhonda Preston provides a twanging solo) and dancers including Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Young Fayard is fascinated by the hoofers and soon begins choreographing his own routines. When his younger sister, Dorothy (Shakila), refuses to practice with him anymore, he turns to their little brother, who turns out to have more than what it takes.

s Keeper - Kylah Frye, RaShawn Thompson The boys became dedicated to each other and to their art, and began a professional dancing career in the 1930s, when Fayard was 18 and his younger brother 11. They continued performing together till Harold’s death in 2000.

Tapped by Duke Ellington to perform at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, the brothers were the first black performers to be allowed to mingle with club’s all-white audiences. They also got a helping hand from bandleader Cab Calloway (some nice jiving from Daryl Brooks).

Through their tremendous talent, the brothers broke other color barriers, and had an enormously successful career that took them to Hollywood and overseas. Their personal lives were stormy, however. Fayard’s marriage fell apart when his wife (Melanie McCullough) tired of playing second fiddle to his brother, his dancing and — not mentioned in this show — his philandering. Harold married actress Dorothy Dandridge (an evocative performance by Kylah Williams), but the marriage, troubled from the outset, foundered after their daughter was born with brain damage.

The cast also feature the talents of Allison McCorkle,Carrie, Jessica Moore, Christopher Kudiacz, Cory Wright and Michael Bartlett who ably impersonates Bojangles Robinson and Michael Jackson.

My Brother’s Keeper provides a wonderful look back at what entertainment used to be.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Cab Calloway in Stormy Weather, 1943 

 

The Nicholas Brothers with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, 1977

 

        

Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

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Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

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