REVIEW: Nothin’ But The Blues (Black Ensemble Theatre)

Lifted by the Blues

 

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The Black Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Nothin’ But the Blues
  
Written by Joe Plummer
Directed by
Jackie Taylor and Daryl Brooks
at
Black Ensemble Theatre, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Let me take you on a journey to the not so distant past. Take a step into the dark glass brick lounges of the South and West sides of Chicago. The ladies are dressed like they are entered in a pageant and the gentlemen are exquisitely groomed in a rainbow of colors not seen on Wall Street. The Black Ensemble Theater brings this  world vividly to life in Nothin’ But the Blues. This glorious musical is a tribute to the legendary Theresa’s Lounge that operated out of a basement from 1954 until 1983.

 Lawrence Williams and Rhonda Preston in "Nothin' But the Blues" at BETThe cast parades out singing an original song by Black Ensemble founder Jackie Taylor blended in with snippets from blues classics immediately recognizable by the audience. They are stock characters familiar if you have seen ‘chitlin circuit’ comics or Oscar Micheaux revivals with all Black casts. The chitlin’ circuit was where Black comics and singers toured through the South confined to juke joints and establishments in the Colored Only areas. Some of the world’s greatest music and performers cut their teeth on the circuit and rarely received proper recognition while still living.

There is the bar room sage named Washburn played by Rick Stone. He plays the old guy sitting in the corner who sees everything and says little. Mr. Stone is a stately older gentleman who I remember from the classic 70’s movie “Cooley High”.

He sings several numbers with suave facial exaggerations distinct to the emotions of the blues. He moves his body in a fluid and comical manner while singing of covert love and shenanigans in “Back Door Man”. He raises the subject matter above the raunchy content while keeping the sly fun going.

Rhonda Preston plays Theresa Needham with sass and wit. Ms. Preston has a powerhouse voice and whip smart comic timing as Mrs. Needham, who kept the Lounge and the music going for thirty years against the odds. History tells of Theresa’s famous puppet that she kept behind the bar that hid a gun in case things got out of hand. Ms. Preston looks at home behind the bar and projects the motherly tough love that comes to be expected of lady saloonkeepers. She will pour you a stiff drink and kick your butt to the curb while singing some gutbucket blues on Blue Mondays Open Mike at the Lounge. She is hilarious to watch and will have you stomping your feet with her voice.

Trinity Murdock plays the role of the doorman Will with a perfect weariness and touch of lecherous flair when the lovely ladies enter the Lounge. There is a fine exchange between Mr. Murdock and Candace C. Edwards as the hot bar hussy Rolanda. He lusts but she pointedly tells him that he is too old for the kind of fun she is out to have. Ms. Edwards’ Rolanda is a throwback to the sirens of the 40’s. She teases but never reaches the sleaze factor that so many actresses fall into these days. The character’s goodies are a mystery even wrapped in a slinky blue dress.

 

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The biggest laughs come from the exchanges between Lyle Miller as Lewis the Drunk and Ms. Preston. Miller brings the stumbling neighborhood drunk to comical life. He tries to wheedle a bar tab and hit on the ladies despite his sweaty disheveled visage. Theresa pours his drinks but keeps him in check with stinging barbs. He has a rather predictable storyline with Robin Beaman as Flo – another well-dressed barfly. Ms. Beaman is a fine singer and has a heart-wrenching role as the woman who lost her love and listens to the blues for a cure.

A very handsome and muscular Kelvin Rolston Jr. plays the neighborhood mailman. He drops in after work to have a drink and engage in some canoodling with Rolanda until his winsome and apparently devout wife discovers his subterfuge. Noreen Starks is a delight as Mrs. Tate, the mailman’s wife. She turns the church lady image on its head with a fiery rendition of “You Can Have My Husband But Don’t Mess With My Man”. It was a fun climactic moment when she confronts Rolanda about her wanton ways with Mr. Tate. She lets everyone know that wives are getting their share too.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening came from Lawrence Williams as “The Kid”. He projects innocence with his youthful eagerness and jangly energy but when  he steps up to the microphone, he sings with the loneliness and sadness of a man decades older. It is Mr. Williams theatrical debut and he has star quality in his voice and acting.

Nothing-But-The-Blues (Edwards-Preston-Miller)Some of the plot lines in Nothin’ But The Blues are predictable and a little too neatly tied up. That is a risk that comes with portraying a historical figure and an era when ‘chitlin circuit’ was the norm. However, that is also what is so comforting and wonderful about this show. It is authentic with the music and the vibe of Theresa’s Lounge – or any of the neighborhood places where the wet glasses “sing” when stacked on the bar mat. Black Ensemble is known for bringing the stories of the unsung to life with great flair and this is another bulls-eye for them. It needs to be said many times where the roots of rock and roll came from because time always rewrites history. The great blues lounges and taverns have given way to people with deeper pockets and a commercialized sound. It is wonderful to be reminded that Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn sat in Theresa’s before they took their sounds to the world.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fabulous set design by Carl Ulaszek. It is spot on with the photo of Dr. King amidst the glasses and bottles just like he was on the walls of countless Black people back in the day. There is an appropriately greenish jar of pickled eggs for the classic ‘working man’s breakfast – a shot, a stein, and a pickled egg. The signs and the beautiful Formica bar put a little lump in my throat for times gone by. BET founder Jackie Taylor designed the gorgeous costumes. Ms. Taylor is a force of nature that has brought the Ensemble to national recognition. She scores big with the colorful and outrageous costumes. Black people dressed to the nines in the days of Theresa’s and places like the Roberts 500 Club. Everything matched down to the shoes. It brings joy to see the fedora making a return!

One piece of friendly advice – when you go to Nothin’ But the Blues, be sure to bring your toe tapping shoes!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Nothin’ But The Blues plays on Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 3:00 through August 29th at the Black Ensemble Theater 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. Call 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.org

L-ro-R: Trinity Murdock, Rhonda Preston and Rick Stone

 

           

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REVIEW: Blue Shadow (Lifeline Theatre)

A joyous “Blue Shadow”

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Lifeline Theatre presents:

Blue Shadow

by Nambi E. Kelley, with Xavier Kelley
music and lyrics by
Joe Plummer
directed by Ilesa Duncan
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 2nd (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

There are so many tests in life. As children, some of the first we have occur on the play lot and then later in school, ranging from how to make friends to how to make it off of the playground without being teased. Back in the day, there weren’t many guides for this kind of stuff; if a child was not popular then the dice often fell the same way your entire life. These days, we are encouraged to celebrate our differences and somehow find common ground. It was from this premise that I took my niece Lexie and my nephew David to see The Blue Shadow at the Lifeline Theatre.

I grew up on shows like “Captain Kangaroo” and “Garfield Goose”. Questions of national origin were never addressed (although I suspected something subversive about Mr. Green Jeans). By the time “Sesame Street” and “Zoom” came along, I was well into junior high and getting plenty of doses of cold reality thanks to the world seemingly getting smaller via the evening news.

BlueShadow2The Blue Shadow, by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, is lovingly adapted for the stage from a book written with her nephew Xavier Kelley. When walking up the to theatre, there was a gaggle of excited kids racing us to the door. I got the book and CD for my young guests (which I recommend as a fine way to continue the positive energy of the production after going home). I introduced Lexie and David to Ms. Kelley and her nephew Xavier, who both autographed the book. It was a good example to set for the children – something to aspire to in perhaps writing their stories.

When we were ushered to our seats, it wasn’t long before members of the cast, in character, filtered through the audience. Dawn Pryor  sat down in the aisle next to my nephew and introduced herself as her character Zuri. Her exuberant smile and bouncing braids immediately enthralled David. Ms. Pryor engaged him in a conversation and I admit to being charmed as well. When Miguel Nunez introduced himself as Ernesto, I scoffed at his claim of being ten years old. Mr. Nunez retorted with a very convincing “uh-huh I’m ten!” It was a clever means of involving the young audience and then focusing them on the stage.

Ben Chang plays the role of Wei – a cool kid wearing headphones who launches into an audience participation rap. Wei is joined onstage by Africa (Pryor), Meso-America (Nunez), and the European Roksana (Mallory Nees). A teacher is heard in a booming voice-over, telling the children to take their seats and welcome the new student Shadow (Susaan Jamshidi). Jamshidi plays Shadow with perfectly awkward rebellion and tentative shyness at the same time. Bursting onstage wearing a heavy metal tee shirt and dark glasses, the other schoolkids immediately make negative presumptions about her. But the students warm up to her as Shadow impresses them with her Wikipedia knowledge. As the children introduce themselves, they share their origins on a giant inflatable globe. Shadow does not know how to explain her ancestry so easily as the other kids and becomes quite blue. The song “Shadow’s Blues” is funny and forlorn as the audience is reminded that one does not have to get their heart stomped on to have the blues – the blues can come from a yearning to recognized and to belong.  (The music and lyrics by Joe Plummer are a welcome respite from the bleating bubblegum drivel usually peddled to children.)

What follows is a colorful array of tales from the human diaspora. The cast brought my Rand McNally childhood memories to life, traversing the globe with folktales and songs familiar yet new. I admit to a love of the story of Baba Yaga featuring Vasilisa (Nees), the put-upon stepchild in the Russian version of the Cinderella story sans Prince Charming. The entire cast is involved in each tale but this was a wonder of identity switching and snappy dialogue with a great gross-out depiction of Baba Yaga’s meal request. I bow to the props department on getting an ‘ewww!’ from everyone.

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Each story is told to discover Shadow’s origins. After hearing tales from around the globe, she recalls a tale from her childhood of how moccasins were fashioned from buffalo skins. It is a story of mud and bunions with a great cameo by a buffalo that will delight all age groups.

The performances are full of such childlike exuberance that one forgets that these are adults on the stage performing as children. The cast embodies a frenetic energy that sincerely enjoys the material.  The musical performances are broadly drawn; designed to remain in a child’s mind well beyond the production’s close. The use of shadow puppets and great papier mache masks lends a wonderful live cartoon vibe that draws one further into each folktale; inspiring flights of imagination.

At the play’s conclusion, all sections of the globe are filled in and everyone has a story of discovery. The writing inspired curiosity for learning about other cultures for my niece and nephew. There is a trip to the Field Museum in my near future as well as a tour through the family tree and photo albums.

Ms. Kelley, the playwright, has an impressive theatre resume here in Chicago as well as on both coasts. I have fond memories of her performances and am very excited to see her coming accomplishments on the writing side. I’m also looking forward to following the blossoming talents of Kelly’s nephew, Xavier, who adapted “The Muddy Foot” – the pivotal story in finding Shadow’s cultural identity. Xavier is all of ten years old and quite an impressive young man.

Director Ilesa Duncan has staged a flowing and fast paced production with The Blue Shadow. Never once does the direction condescend to the young audience, which ranges from four years old and up. I am always amazed at the stagecraft of the productions at Lifeline Theatre. This is but one of the reasons that Chicago is America’s theatre leader.

 

Rating: ★★★

“The Blue Shadow” run Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 11:00am and 1:00pm through May 2, 2010. There are no performances on Easter Sunday, April 4th, 2010.

Ticket information is available at 773-761-4477 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1371 As always more information is available at www.lifelinetheatre.com

Please note that the cast is available after the performances to sign autographs and take pictures. Also the book and CD are available at the box office.

 

 

Video courtesy of Lifeline Video Library

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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