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

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

 

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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.

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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

 

        

BET presents its 5th-Annual Black Playwrights Festival

 

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Black Ensemble Theater presents

The 5th-Annual Black Playwrights Festival

DECEMBER 7-14, 2009

Jackie Taylor, Founder and Executive Director of Black Ensemble Theater, is proud to announce the 5th Annual Black Playwrights Festival, produced by the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI). running from Monday, December 7 through Monday, December 14, 2009.

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The Black Playwrights Festival was created by playwright Jackie Taylor to provide adequate exposure to the members of the Black Playwrights Initiative (BPI), offer a professional platform to have members’ works produced, and bring attention to the high quality of work that African American playwrights from Chicago have to offer. The BPI is a program created and developed by Taylor for the purpose of highlighting Chicago’s rich community of African American playwrights and to help strengthen the pool of Chicago playwrights by providing a forum for play readings, year round classes, workshops and resources. Additionally, the BPI was created to provide a continuum of scripts for the Black Ensemble Theater, helping to expose playwrights on both a local and national level.

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Highlights of the Black Playwrights Festival include readings of “Nothin but the Blues” written by Joe Plummer and David Barr; “The Dancesical, a play performed through dance choreographed by Rueben Echoles; and “The Clark Sisters” written by Dawn Bless Mitchell.

All performances will take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon St. Single tickets are $10.00 per night. A “Playwrights Pass” can be purchased for $30.00 and can be used for entrance to any night. Valet Parking is available for $8.00.

Below the fold is a complete schedule for the 5th Annual Black Playwrights Festival. All plays are works in progress and the first acts will be the only acts presented for the reading. Audiences will have the opportunity to discuss each reading with the writers and offer feedback and reaction to each work.

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