By Julian J. Frazin
Retired Cook County Circuit Judge • Entertainment Critic
May it please the court …
Long before the emergence of the so-called "jukebox musical," with such Broadway and touring successes as "Movin' Out" (featuring the hits of Billy Joel), "Mamma Mia!" (ABBA) and "Jersey Boys" (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), there was the Black Ensemble Theater. For at least 40 years, its work profiled the lives and music of such legendary black artists as Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Teddy Pendergrass, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
Founded in 1976 by its executive producer, director and prolific writer, Jackie Taylor, it has remained true to its mission: "to eradicate racism and its damaging effects upon our society through the utilization of theater arts." Under her leadership, the company has become one of most vibrant leaders and innovators of black musical theater in the country and is now culminating that success with the opening of its first permanent home, The Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, in the heart of Uptown at 4450 N. Clark St.
This magnificent $19 million structure, which houses a 299-seat state of the art theater in addition to 14 offices, classroom space, rehearsal hall, dance studio, wardrobe, costume and scene shop, seven dressing rooms, front lobby space and an indoor parking garage, is a far cry from the quaint venue in the Uptown Hull House Center at 4520 N. Beacon St. It's where I first saw this troupe perform in the early 1990s. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the particular show I saw, but I'll never forget the pounding beat that came from the onstage band or the spirited wall-to-wall audience in this 170-seat venue. Consisting mostly of mature, black women, dressed to the nines in their elaborate hats and Sunday best, who had arrived by charter bus from throughout the area, viewers rocked in time to the rhythm of the music and shouted words of approval to the performers. The joyous reaction was as much like gospel church as I had every experienced in a theater.
Yahdina Udeen and Rashawn Thompson in "The Marvin Gaye Story" at Black Ensemble Theater.
Photo by Danny Nicholas.
It was a truly spiritual experience, which I am pleased to say has been successfully transported to the new venue as evidenced by the audience's reaction to its latest production of "The Marvin Gaye Story (Don't Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend)" produced, written and directed by Taylor and starring the 12-year company veteran Rashawn Thompson in the title role. It is the tragic story of a drug-addicted, black singer whose career began in the doo-wop era of the '50s, carried through the rhythm and blues of the '60s, the political consciousness of the '70s and more sophisticated sounds of the '80s before being shot and killed by his own father. But his music lives on in such great hits as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "What's Going On?" "Inner City Blues" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
Thompson excels as the once stage-frightened, young Marvin who can only sing with others before emerging as a great solo artist able to stand on his own, interacting and flirting with his backup singers as well as the women in the audience.
He is supported by a marvelous cast of attractive and talented singers and dancers who interact with him and each other in a most playful and spontaneous manner. In addition, the show is enhanced by outstanding images by Mike Tutaj, projected on a huge screen. But, as always, the star of the show remains that magnificent, all-star band of Chicago musicians led by their director, drummer and arranger Robert Reddrick, with Bill McFarland on trombone, Paul Howard on trumpet, Herb Walker on guitar, Mark Moultrup on keyboard, Tracey Anita Baker on bass and Dudley Owens on tenor sax.
This wonderful production is scheduled to run through July 29 and is followed in September by "One Name Only (A Tribute to the Ladies of Soul)" about the legendary Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross and Chaka Khan. November will see a return of the Black Ensemble Theater's most successful "The Other Cinderella," which has been repeated every other year since its premiere in 1976. It is the black version of this classic fairy tale with Cinderella being born in the projects, a "fairy Godmamma" from Jamaica and two stepsisters who "don't do nuthin'" in a kingdom where everybody has soul. Sounds like fun.
At the curtain of every performance, Taylor steps before the audience to remind them that "now that we've got a great new theater, we've got to pay for it. So like always, your donations will be appreciated." Then she adds, "There's a box as you leave … just like in church."
That's right, Jackie, just like in church. Amen.
I rest my case.
"The Marvin Gaye Story"
The Black Ensemble Theater