Review: The Last Saint on Sugar Hill (MPAACT)

     
     

A new modern tragedy classic is born

  
  

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

  
MPAACT presents
  
  
The Last Saint on Sugar Hill
   
Written by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Carla Stillwell
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It is a privilege to see new theater works from the outset. MPAACT’s production of The Last Saint on Sugar Hill is one of those rare privileged moments in time. This is destined to be a classic written by Keith Josef Adkins and directed by Carla Stillwell – Resident Director of MPAACT. Adkins opens the hot button issue of gentrification and those who profit from it for examination of motives and consequences.

The Pedigrew family lives a comfortable life in what remains of hardscrabble Harlem. The residence of former President Clinton, gourmet coffee, and wine shops threaten to change the landscape and remove the people who know no other home.

In a stunningly visceral performance, journeyman actor Trinity Murdock potrays the character of Napoleon Pedigrew, who presides over the last of the Harlem buildings gone to seed. I have seen Murdock in several roles on Chicago stages and he can be depended upon to play the neighborhood good guy or singing griot.

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins. The role of Napoleon Pedigrew is rooted in ancient traditional tragedy and 20th Century social unrest. Playwright Adkins has carefully crafted a non-stereotypical role in Napoleon. I say that because it is an unflinching and honest look at what has been unspoken on the mainstream stage. Mr. Murdock presents a sociopath whose interests and wealth are literally ripped from the bodies and souls of those who are unfortunate enough to inhabit his buildings or contain his DNA.

The language is street raw and dismissive of political or societal correctness. There is no "N" word- it is nigger said with ferocity. At first, the rap that flows from Napoleon is pithy and comedic in the folksy style of that favorite or feared drunk relative. It is funny in the style of Richard Pryor performing for a Black audience. As the play barrels forward like a bullet, Napoleon Pedigrew’s words take on a frightening tilt. Here is a man who felt the spike of poverty and the chokehold of the underclass so keenly that his conscience snapped. Trinity Murdock plays this character laid bare and full of angry hubris. Napoleon brags of his knowledge from snippets of PBS to which he donates to give him the cache of current education. It is a bravura performance.

Napoleon Pedigrew’s sons are the vehicles for his parasitic real estate empire and the victims of his stranglehold on their memories. Mateo Smith plays the role of eldest son Dexter Pedigrew. Dexter was a promising med student who has been drawn into his father’s world of cracking heads for rent and unscrupulous methods to hide cheap or dangerous repairs. Mr. Smith gives a nuanced and heartbreaking performance as a man who wants to please his father and somehow be of service to the neighborhood that is crumbling under his feet. Napoleon tells Dexter that he is a thug and it would be a waste of his talent to be a doctor.

Dexter’s childhood holds a traumatic event that pressed his humanity to the side at his father’s behest. Napoleon tells his son, "Thinking is for thinkers and you are a thug down to the bone." He pounds the thought into Dexter’s head that boxing is the greatest form of capitalism and one of the fringe benefits of his daddy’s sperm. Smith subtly recoils at each of the jabs from the father character. Each jolt builds in a slow and controlled simmer that is on an equally frightening steady boil at the climax of the play.

The youngest son Z is played by David Goodloe. At first Z seems to play into his father’s world of debauchery. He reduces women to asses, thighs, and panties. Mr. Goodloe is at first funny as the tail-chasing stud playing with his daddy’s money. His father has him under the control of the promise of being comfortable no matter what happens in the neighborhood. Z gleefully hits happy hour at the new fancy cigar bar to see how much sex he can rack up. It’s sad to know that his youth has been wasted on violence and sex as an education. Napoleon encourages the hedonism in misplaced elevation of how he can rule the world with money.

Goodloe’s performance evolves into a man discontented with what his life has become. His realization comes as a sudden jolt after the father is fully revealed as a monster. Goodloe fleshes out the Pedigrew dysfunction by playing an unwitting victim who was never taught to be a fully evolved and involved man. The cast is rounded out by Terry Francois and Sati Word in perfectly crafted motif roles that fill in the story. Mr. Francois plays a homeless man who becomes the living conscience for Dexter. It is a beautiful performance that never becomes maudlin. Sati Word is another MPAACT ensemble regular that I last saw in the highly-recommended Tad in the 5th City (my review). He plays medical resident Joseph who reminds Dexter of his potential and responsibility to himself and his community. He represents another facet of Dexter’s conscience. Mr. Word is an engaging presence that I would love to see in a showcased role.

It should be noted that opening night was full of local actors and friends of the cast. I found it unsettling that they kept laughing long after it became obvious that Napoleon Pedigrew believed all of his egotistical folksy ravings. He meant that he would cut the heads off of his children if it would get him what he wanted. I felt great sorrow when Napoleon stated," America is trying to kill us Black men. We are an endangered species scrambling for our own crumbs. The only way to stop the watchful eye of The Man is to sit on a throne of cash!" Like any great art, there is painful or recognizable truth contained in the words, notes, or brushstrokes. It seems as if they have not seen much of the life they portray on the stage and I felt that it was very disrespectful of their fellow actors.

This show is something that should be put on your viewing schedule. It is entertaining but also a telling social commentary about how business gets done in America. Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump are just the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Also, Trinity Murdock’s performance is not to be missed. Bravo!

     
    
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Chicago's award-winning theatre company MPAACT presents "The Last Saint on Sugar Hill" by Keith Josef Adkins.

MPAACT’s The Last Saint on Sugar Hill continues through June 12th at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N. Clark), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $23, and can be purchased from the MPAACT website.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Other Cinderella (Black Ensemble Theater)

 

Definitely not your Mama’s Cinderella!

 

Katrina Miller, Candace Edwards, Rhonda Preston, Robin Beaman

    
Black Ensemble Theater presents
    
The Other Cinderella    
 
Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at
Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through January 9  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

“Cinderella” has always been one of my favorite stories from childhood. I have to qualify this statement by revealing that I like the original Grimm’s version called “Aschenputtel,” that was more about the hard economic realities of marriage. Black Ensemble’s The Other Cinderella is a hilarious and decidedly unsanitized take on the classic. As with most BE musical productions, this show starts with a dazzling revue of the cast’s talents that introduce us to the Land of Other – a.k.a. the hood.

Candace Edwards and Lawrence Williams (1)After a dazzling musical opening that introduces the cast, we are taken to the hood, er..Land of Other, where three buddies and a girl are hanging out, waiting to hear the lottery numbers. This lottery will decide who gets the job in the palace court. Rueben Echoles is the lucky winner of the job as Page in the palace. Daniel Simmons and Joshua N. Banks play his pals Groundhog and Peanut Butter respectively. Niina Coleman plays Alice, the Page’s sister. The roles are a celebration of the better side of life in the hood. Page, Groundhog, Peanut Butter and Alice have a sweet camaraderie that rarely gets portrayed in the usual venues. Mr. Echoles is a comic wonder with his elastic face, great physicality, and bulls-eye timing as Page. Simmons and Banks are a lot of fun to watch as well.

Page comes up against the royal court of Other played by the formidable Michael Bartlett as the King’s Attendant and Mandy Lewis as the Queen’s Lady in Waiting. Mr. Bartlett has a marvelous baritone speaking voice that he uses to great humor lavishing praise on the King. Ms. Lewis is lovely and sings a beautiful duet with Mr. Bartlett about skin color called “Look at Me”. Trinity Murdock plays the King with wonderful bombast and command. Noreen Stark plays the Queen with just the right amount of royal serenity and backbone to stand up against the King. Writer and director Jackie Taylor mixed some modern ingredients in this production. The King and Queen are stressed out that their son the Prince (Lawrence Williams) is not giving any signs of finding a suitable wife. The King doesn’t like one of the Prince’s friends because he is gay.  He also insists on throwing a ball which forces the Prince to pick a woman from the attendees. The Queen is aghast at this edict and would rather see her son with a man if that would make him happy. (I guarantee you that this was not in the Grimm’s version or the Lesley Anne Warren/Stuart Damon version back in the 60’s!)

Meanwhile, back in the hood, we are introduced to Cinderella and her stepfamily. It is truly the villains that make this production laugh out loud funny. Rhonda Preston plays Stepmother, who works all day at the post office and is “lookin’ for a man to ring my bell”. Robin Beaman plays Stepsister Geneva and Katrina Miller plays Stepsister Margarite. Beaman and Miller made my sides hurt from laughing as they taunted Cinderella, played by the lovely Candace Edwards. They engage in what is known as playing the dozens, which is trying to out-insult your adversary. Preston brings down the house when she reaches her boiling point with Cinderella, pulling a classic neighborhood fight move by taking off her wig and doing a Mohammed Ali boxing dance. Ms. Preston channels some of the greatest comic women, including Carol Burnett, as she descends the stairs to the ball. Ms. Miller is absolutely brilliant as a vain hoochie mama who tries to seduce the prince with a bump-and-grind. Her hair color changes with each scene in true ghetto fabulousness. Ms. Beaman plays the wide-eyed Prince-stalker to perfection. When she meets him at the ball she goes into a crazy baby voice asking for a ring. The Stepsisters sing a mocking tune called “Wash Them Walls” that is very funny both visually and lyrically.

As this musical takes place in the hood, the props and the premises are a bit different. The Fairy Godmama is a Jamaican style wish-granter, played by the talented and beautiful Deja Taylor. Cinderella doesn’t have little rodents for friends as that is no joke or cute to some folks. Fairy Godmama puts a stretch Hummer outside the door with Usher as the driver and Denzel Washington as a goody for herself. Cinderella’s hair is magically done under the do rag that she always wears. A gorgeous gown is under her frumpy housecoat and golden stilettos appear in Godmama’s purse. The mostly Black audience got a laugh when Godmama told Cinderella to be home by 11:45. She would have said midnight but worried about CP time, which stands for Colored People time-always a bit late.

 

Christina Cain Mandy Lewis, Noreen Stark, Lawrence Williams, Trinity Murdock, Michael Bartlett
Katrina Miller, Robin Beaman, Rhonda Preston Lawrence Williams, Katrina Miller

The ball is a dazzling display of costumes and dancing. The men are garbed in gorgeous long jackets and cream-colored shoes. The women are visions in gold – that is until the Step Sisters arrive in tacky mantrap splendor. A special party crasher arrives in the form of Christina Cain as Dorothy from Kansas. She wants to join the Kingdom of Other and a gasp goes up in the court. Everyone gives the White girl an incredulous look but the King and Queen are more welcoming if she can pass some tests to prove she belongs in Other.

She has to eat the royal watermelon and identify the three most popular greens in Black households by taste. Ms. Taylor has spun the stereotypes on their ridiculous heads by writing this role. Dorothy Gale from Kansas went to Oz and apparently didn’t like home when she went back. The final test is for Dorothy to sing the blues and sing she does. Ms. Cain rocks “The White Girl Blues” and is welcomed into the kingdom.

The story has an interesting ending that is a departure from both Grimm and the sanitized Disney version. The shoe fits more than one woman! You will have to check out this wonderful production to see how that plays out. You can be assured that you will have a good time, hear some great music, and be astounded by the costumes both on stage and in the audience. I love seeing a man in head to toe turquoise down to the socks and shoes and women actually dressed for the theatre. It’s old school all the way.

   
    
Rating: ★★★   
   
    

Daniel Simmons, Rueben Echoles, Joshua N Banks

The Other Cinderella runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm through January 9th, 2011. The theatre is located at 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. This location is around the corner from what will be Black Ensemble’s new home at 4440 N. Clark. The company broke ground in September on a state of the art theatre complex. This promises to be another jewel in the tradition of great Chicago theatre companies and a springboard for our awesome local talent!

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

Lifted by the Blues

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-emsemble

 
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.

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-Rhonda-Preston Nothin-But-The-Blues-Stone-Murdock
Nothin-But-The-Blues-Lyle-Miller2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Noreen-Starks2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Reddrick-Murdock

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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Black Ensemble Theatre to present world premiere: “The Message Is in the Music”

photo Ricky Message in the music The Black Ensemble Theater opens its Five Play Season of Excellence Dedicated to the Music with the World Premiere production of The Message Is In The Music (God Is A Black Man Named Ricky). Produced, written, and directed by Black Ensemble founder and executive director Jackie Taylor, The Message.. is a fanciful, song-filled production featuring selections by superstars ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Stevie Wonder; The Isley Brothers to The Temptations; The Beatles to Paul Simon, just to name a few. Scheduled for an open run, preview performances will begin October 3, with opening night being Sunday, October 18th. More info here.

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