REVIEW: Doo-Lister’s Blues (National Pastime Theater)

Remembering the Blues

 

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National Pastime Theater 
   
Doo-Lister’s Blues
   
Written by Terry Abrahamson
Directed by
Victory Cole 
at
National Pastime, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through November 28  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I remember the west side in the 1960’s up close and personal. My grandparents lived down the street from WVON and just south of Madison when it went up in flames. Doo Lister’s Blues is a recreation of that time from one family’s point of view. Playwright Terry Abrahamson has attempted to put that time in a capsule with the burgeoning new Black music scene as the dramatic focus.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 3 Doo is a barber on the West Side who is trying to keep things together. He and his wife want to adopt a baby. They present the perfect couple on paper. He is a business owner and she is a schoolteacher. Warren Levon plays the part of Doo with an understated grace and sweet humor. Lucy Sandy plays his wife Maria with a perfect counterpoint of common sense to Doo’s dreamer style. At the opening of Act I the riots are already in progress and Doo has remained in his shop to protect it while sending his wife to the relative safety of Maywood. Life is just okay and his shop is safe until a force of nature named Rebecca walks into his shop offering to set up a record business as a side gig. Victoria Abram-Copenhaver is perfect in the role of Rebecca, projecting the idealism and fearlessness that I recall about some of the White activists that appeared in the neighborhood when I was a kid. Unbeknownst to Doo, Rebecca is having an affair with his younger brother Buck. Buck is a 4F draft dodger with the FBI on his tail.

Doo wants to be a songwriter but his songs are treacle about chocolate love and candy kisses. Actually, the songs are a pretty funny motif to the first act. Mr. Levon is a portly man reminiscent of Barry White in his romanticism and looks. Rebecca shows no interest in his songs and yet gives him encouragement to change the scope of his music.

Terry Francois plays the role of Buck Lister. I have seen Mr. Francois in MPAACT Theatre productions, and he brings the same excellent crafting to the role of Buck Lister. Buck is doomed on all fronts. He is hiding in a garage in Uptown where he works as a valet. Add to the mix his relationship with a White girl. That is no big deal now but it was called miscegenation back then and was outright illegal or cause for violence. Mr. Francois plays the role with a light humor and grace that makes him even more horrible end even sadder. Agent Jewel Moton, played by Damien Crim, is in hot pursuit of Buck Lister. He is the rare Black agent and sent in to talk sense to the family ‘Negro to Negro’. Mr. Crim handles the role quite well. It is a hot potato of political and social implications. Agent Moton has advanced in his career, but he has become what we used to call ‘The Man’ and is not to be trusted. Mr. Crim displays, with marvelous subtlety, the emotions of a man conflicted and yet dedicated to his job at the same time.

It’s Act II where the play picks up steam and really delves into the music and Cultural Revolution that was the result of the violence. After the murder of Buck, Doo adopts a Black Revolutionary stance. He wears a dashiki and skullcap and the tone of his music changes. Kenneth Johnson plays the role of sidekick Catfish and he gives Doo a gentle ribbing while still being supportive. Mr. Johnson does well in the underwritten role. I wish that his character had been fleshed out more. Part of the play’s conflict resides in the angry turn that Doo’s music has taken.  I clearly remember the music of a group called ‘The Last Poets,’ and his music gives homage to them. My next-door neighbor would put her speakers in the window and blast the lyrics to the neighborhood. The music encouraged an uprising as well as pride in one’s roots before ‘Roots’. There was the exhortation to fight the cops, and Stokely Carmichael screaming ‘burn baby burn’ supported it. The production does a fine job of portraying those times and the consequences of the so-called revolution.

Doo’s music cannot be played on the radio because it could incite more riots. His wife loses her job for consorting with her own husband. One disc jockey agrees to play the music and Agent Moton gets to him. Rebecca goes on the run with the master tapes and Doo Lister ends up in jail for daring to practice the Constitutional right to free speech.

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The National Pastime Theater Ensemble does a fine job reproducing the sights and sounds of the times. The barber/record shop is spot on with the Black Power fist in the window. Upon closer inspection there is the classic Huey Newton poster that displays the legendary Black Panther with a spear and a rifle. (I still have his albums.) Even the sounds of the scratchy AM radio sounded wonderful to me.

The company needs to work out some lighting cues. Before we were let in we were told of sound cue problems. That was not the case but the glaring house lights came up each time a scene changed. Another glitch was the insertion of the rapper between scenes along with the multimedia display. I presume that it was supposed to show the roots of rap going back to ‘The Last Poets’ but it felt ham-fisted and sounded even worse. Rapper Al Mayweathers held the microphone too close, obscuring any clarity of his words. It may have been to make the play more relevant to younger audiences but it served more to disjoint the rhythm of the action. History is cyclical; perhaps today’s rappers have a similar frame of reference, but it does not blend well with the story or the action.

Director Victor Cole makes good use of the supporting cast.. The characters appear in expressionistic light as if frozen in time. It’s a good way to present the police and corporate entities that served to suppress freedom of speech and expression in music. That time in history has so many layers that one two-hour play could not cover it without skimming over important facts. Abrahamson has selected wisely to focus on one family while perhaps inciting people’s curiosity to look up some of the other facts about Chicago during this time.

For the most part, Doo Lister’s Blues provides a thoughtful and enjoyable couple of hours with Chicago’s history. My companion and I were abuzz with memories about that time, which is definitely a nice side effect.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Doo Lister’s Blues runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 28th. The National Pastime Theater is located at 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago. For more details call 773-327-7077 or log on to www.bluesonbroadway.com

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REVIEW: Aida (Bailiwick Chicago)

Love conquers all, even in ancient Egypt

 

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Bailiwick Chicago presents
    
Aida
  
Book by L. Woolverton, Robert Falls and D.H. Hwang
Music by
Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by
Scott Ferguson
Music Directed by
Jimmy Morehead/Robert Ollis
at
American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 1st  |  Tickets:  $30-$45  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Egypt attacks Nubia. Women are abducted. The lead captor and enslaved princess-in-disguise share a passionate connection. Not your ordinary boy-meets-girl scenario, this musical establishes its premise from the first song, “Every Story is a Love Story.” Bailiwick Chicago presents Aida, the Tony Award winning Elton John and Tim Rice musical based on Giuseppe Verdi’s Italian opera of the same name. The 3859 Pharaoh’s daughter has been betrothed for nine years. To avoid settling down, her fiancé, Radames, has been pilfering villages along the Nile River. Everything changes when Radames imprisons Aida from Nubia. A plot to kill the Pharaoh, an uprising of Nubian slaves, the plan for a royal wedding – despite this political duress, an epic love story conquers all. An elaborate production set on a small stage, Bailiwick Chicago’s Aida triumphs simply with song, dance and a legendary love story.

In the title role, Rashada Dawan (Aida) is a regal force that commands the stage. Her physical presence is one of stately elegance. Her singing voice is a powerful authority beckoning adoration. The chemistry between Dawan and Brandon Chandler (Radames) is romantic captivation. Their duet “Elaborate Lives” elicits a combination of shivers and mistiness from any optimistic cynic in matters of the heart. Chandler’s vulnerability and Dawan’s strength are an irresistible coupling for an operatic love story. Bringing the humor to countries at war, Adrianna Parson (Amneris) plays the spoiled princess with a fashion obsession. Her ‘I am what I wear. Dress has always been my strongest suit’ attitude is flashy moxie. The contrasting styles, in dress and personality from Dawan, make Parson a standout in a supporting role. Another secondary character hitting the comedic notes is Aaron Holland (Mereb) as an enterprising slave.

 

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With a cast of twenty on a smaller stage, some of the scenes and transitions seem clunky. It’s trying to do too much with too many. At other moments, like “God Loves Nubia”, the magnitude of the numbers add to the impressive visual and audio spectacle. The large cast also adds to some costume speed bumps. Costume Designer Rick Lurie and a group of fashion designers have gone all out with the ladies for some multiple, extravagant wardrobe changes. Splurging on intricate details for the female cast, it seems the money ran out for the men. The guys are wearing their own personal cargo pants or shorts with distracting striped cummerbunds. And it’s not the slaves that are poorly dressed, it’s the wealthy Egyptians. Despite the big cast and small space, Gary Abbott and Kevin Iega Jeff have choreographed extraordinary dance routines. Whether dancers are rowing the boat, plotting a murder or modeling the latest fashions, the movement is original, tribal and athletic.

Elton John and Tim Rice have created a memorable and poignant score for the blockbuster musical Aida. This Bailiwick Chicago production is a voluptuous woman squeezed into a size eight. She could benefit from a little more room or trimming down but she’s still beautiful!

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a fifteen minute intermission

       
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Three Four Words: Fanning himself with Egyptian style, Scott-dds describes the show as “powerful, memorable, extremely entertaining.”

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