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: The Old Settler (Writers Theatre)

Harlem drama ignites with Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the helm

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Writers’ Theatre presents:

The Old Settler

 

by John Henry Redwood
directed by Ron OJ Parsons
through March 28th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

The title of John Henry Redwood‘s play refers to a woman past her thirties who has yet to find a husband and has no romantic prospects. Harlem, 1946, and that woman is Elizabeth Borny, pious, dignified, and played with great dimensionality by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. When she finds herself the object of handsome young boarder Husband Witherspoon’s (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) affections, Elizabeth must overcome the great heartbreak of her past, an event she holds her sister Quillie (Wandachristine) responsible for.

old-settler011 Capturing both the joy of young love and the world-weariness of age, Bruce gives Elizabeth a young heart with an old soul. Bruce has a natural presence and charisma on stage, but her biggest accomplishment is her ability to portray a character that lacks the same features that make her such a memorable performer. Compared to the fast and loose women that are quickly becoming the norm, including Husband’s lost fiancee Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers), Elizabeth is a relic of a more innocent time, a less desirable time, and Bruce makes her plain yet still captivating.

As a romance with Husband begins, Elizabeth blossoms into a new woman, wearing tight-fitting clothes, beautifully designed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, and staying out until daybreak drinking champagne. These later scenes are when Bruce is able to finally let loose, especially in the confrontations she has with Quillie and Lou Bessie, allowing the emotional intensity of budding love to overcome her moral convictions. It is a mesmerizing character journey, and Bruce is ably assisted by her supporting cast.

Wandachristine finds a fine balance between sass and anxiety as Quillie, and while her relationship with Elizabeth is a source of drama, more importantly she is able to provide a good dose of humor in the production. Her constant fear of home-invading rapists and general disdain for what Harlem has become lighten the mood of the play, but she is more than able to hold her own when threatened.

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Lou Bessie shares a similarly brassy nature, but amplified by her experiences with the seedy figures of the Harlem social scene. When she enters Elizabeth’s home it is with a confidence that is hard to resist, and the major conflict of the play becomes whether or not Husband can overcome her influence. Husband, goofy yet charming, is a fish out of water in New York City, and Elizabeth serves as a connection to his southern roots. Rolston, Jr. has a sincerity that makes his relationship with Elizabeth very organic, but his naiveté ultimately proves his undoing.

Directed by Ron OJ Parsons, the ensemble and design team create a vision of 1946 Harlem that feels very authentic.Jack Magaw‘s set design allows for a wide range of movement, and the details like doilies on the armrests of the couch help make the time period even clearer. The Old Settler is a very solid production that is a great showcase for its leading lady’s talents, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives a great performance.

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Court Theatre

Brilliant and Balanced, Ma Rainey Raises the Roof

 Olglesby, Roston, Johnson, Smith, Alfred, Young, Cox and Spencer - H

Court Theatre presents:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
directed by OJ Parson
runs thru October 18th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

 

Alfred and Johnson - V In the Court Theatre program introduction to their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Ron OJ Parson contrasts his previous experience at Court with August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been a different kind of experience . . . it feels to me like the work of a younger playwright . . . Ma Rainey’s is fast and brash like Levee, its central character.”

Not a bad analogy, between protagonist and play. But it’s not as if Wilson’s first major drama shortchanges the audience in layers of dilemma and meaning. Parson, for his part, deliberately and meticulously draws out every nuance and tier possible between those characters with power and those with less, and less.

John Culbert’s weathered, stressed and architectural set design surely assists Parson in establishing the play’s hierarchies of privilege and power. At its very bottom, the musicians wait and wait for Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby), the Mother of the Blues, to arrive and hold court—at least for as long as the recording session goes on.

Time and generational differences, as much as races or genders, hold the crucial center to this play. The older musicians of Ma’s band, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Cutler (Cedric Young), and Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) have long since learned how to bide their time by swapping stories and friendly BS; choosing the path of least resistance seems to be their life-long technique for deliberately surviving arduous, uncertain times and territory. But their low-key endurance may be too much for Levee (James T. Alfred), who aspires to make his mark with his own jazz compositions and band. To him, such coping strategies smack of compromise with the thousand indignities being black was (is) heir to.

Oglesby and cast - H Levee has far more going on with him than simple impatience or cocksure youthful arrogance. Parson’s direction starts Levee off at a low boil; but it is Alfred’s control, intensity, and fire which succeeds in pulling off Levee’s assault on Cutler, and his rant against God, with crucifying realism.

The play inexorably builds to this, through all the excruciating little deferrals and detours of Ma Rainey’s recording session. Humorous as it is, given Ma’s demand that her stuttering, country nephew Sylvester (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) intro her lead song, running underneath it all is the realization that Ma’s moment of glory is fleeting.

The recording company’s neurotic owner, Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), insistently presses for fresher, faster music, whether he will pay decently for it or not. The money and privilege that Ma is flush with cannot last forever. There is something quite Biblical about this aspect of Wilson’s play, just as there is something downright Greek tragedy about Levee railing against God. It’s here we truly see the marks of a younger playwright.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V Oglesby II - V

Oglesby, for her part, plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career, which doesn’t endear her to the audience, however deeply we identify with her pent up rage when she signs the release forms. She may lord herself over Levee and thwart his ambitions; she may boss her band, her entourage, and her manager; but the limits she bumps into truly close around her. Play the queen as much as she may, true power, which can only come from control over her own work, is not hers to have in this world. The same power denied her, is also denied Levee; what should make them natural allies ends up setting them against each other. The generational divide between Levee and the band also holds devastating consequences.

Overall, this production is too fine for a little critical kibitzing about pacing in some scenes. Court Theatre has a near perfect production on its hands. The entire cast is evenly and indisputably excellent. Even small roles leave lasting impressions, like David Chrzanowski’s smug Policeman, Stephen Spencer’s stressed out but enabling manager, Irvin, and Kristy Johnson, who seems born to play Ma’s woman, Dussie Mae. Now the audience just has to get there before time runs out.

Rating: ««««

 

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Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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