Friday June 23rd 2017

“Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker”

One of the features of attending a Black Ensemble Theater production is that besides having a solid entertainment experience, we also get a history lesson. Most of the work that Jackie Taylor and her staff put on the stage are stories that depict the lives and often struggles of the well- known performers  that have made the headlines in the African-American community. Many of the plays have been written by Ms Taylor, but over the years, she has worked with many young and talented people who due to her mentoring have followed in her footsteps. The current production, a World Premiere is entitled “Black Pearl : A Tribute To Josephine Baker” .This particular story, one that takes us deep into the life of the first “International African-American” star, Josephine Baker, is written and directed by Daryl Brooks and while he is not listed as the choreographer, I am guessing that another of her protégé’s, Rueben D. Echoles created the dance steps in this superb production.

How many of us know much about the talented woman? As we enjoyed our Mother’s Day brunch this morning, I was surprised that my granddaughter, Sarah, knew who she was. Sarah is 9 years old, and Ms. Baker was a star during the 1920’s thru 1950’s. But, Sarah is a dance student and has heard her name mentioned often as the dancer who made it out of the chorus line to stardom. In fact, International stardom. The story starts out with the death of Ms Baker. While it is a strange opening for a play, in particular a musical, it has been used before in this theater, and it works. The opening is Ms Baker (solidly portrayed by Joan Ruffin) becoming our narrator, who takes us down the road of how she rose to the top; her ups and downs, the mistakes she made, the mistrust she learned to live with and all the while, never giving up the hope that stardom was hers to hold.

Playing the younger Josephine is Aeriel “Mon’Aerie” Williams. She is dynamic, dancing and singing up a storm with a smile and personality that will have you falling in love with her from the onset. Both of our Josephine’s are powerful and there are two moments in the show, when they become one in voice and cross the lines of time and space, singing together that will make your heart beat just a little faster. The story shows us how poverty can make one’s selection of life’s path alter. As a youngster, Josephine (who’s real name was Frida, and who’s mother always called her that) was shipped to a family home to work and live to ease her mother’s burden. These were the early 1900’s in St. Louis, and the family was White. You can figure out the rest. She was abused and used and ran away searching for escape.

During her years she married badly and worked in the entertainment world to get ahead. She was young and inexperienced and taken advantage of. The story deals with the segregation that never left the United States and how France was her way to be a star and be loved for her talent, not what color her skin was. What we see is her climb to the top and how in order to do this she had to give up her U.S. citizenship. We also see the politics of “Show-Biz” as well and the true love that this woman had for her family and her friends despite being used by them. Her mother, Carrie (played to perfection by Kylah Frye in her younger years and then Rhonda Preston later), was an interesting character, leaving behind her daughter, taking money from her, and yet, never apologizing for how she let her go. By the way, Ms Frye is also a strong member of the ensemble playing a number of roles and Ms Preston does a great Bessie Smith.

Speaking of the ensemble, Black Ensemble always has great dancers and singers on their stage. Many audience members will notice that this company, which in the old days only had Black ensemble members, has undergone changes. Now, the Black Ensemble Theater ensemble is mixed/integrated. Welcome to 2017! A strong ensemble it is with Lemond A Hayes, William Rowland, Linnea Norwood, Dennis Dent, Gregory “Henri” Slater, Kyle Smith, Jake Stempel, Kelly Maryanski, Vincent Jordan and Phillip Christian. These perfomers change characters and costumes with lightning speed as we cross decades of music with Ms. Baker.

Songs in this production are: “C’est Si Bon”, “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home”, “Maple Leaf Rag” (what a great dance number), “Blue Skies”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, “Charleston”. “Banana Dance (the opening of the second act-wow!), “Begin The Beguine”, “Afetr I Say, I’m Sorry”, “The Times They Are A Changing” and the final song where we have both the young and older Josephine bringing their voices as one, “My Way” ( it will send chills up and down your spine). There are others, but this list is more than enough to make you want to visit this theater.

As always, the musical Director (and at the drums) is Robert Reddrick. His musicians : Dudley Owens (Sax), Bill McFarland (trombone), Paul Howard (trumpet), Gary Baker (guitar) , Mark Miller (Bass) and Roger Weaver (keyboard) make the music come alive. The set, as always is simple and practical (Denise Karczewski, who also did the lighting) and sound (Aaron Quick, who also did the projections) and the costumes (Alexia Rutherford) are fantastic, but at Black Ensemble Theater it is the story, the history and the music that is of the greatest importance. We go to be entertained, and we are, beyond our expectations. That is why, even on Mother’s Day, every seat was filled.  Audiences know they are in for a great two hours of musical entertainment, and they get it!

“Black Pearl: A Tribute To Josephine Baker” will continue at Black Ensemble Theater located at 4450 N. Clark Street (at Montrose) thru June 18th (Father’s Day) with performances as follows:

Thursdays  7:30 p.m.

Fridays  8 p.m.

Saturdays  3 p.m. and  8 p.m.

Sundays  3 p.m.

Tickets are $55 and $65 with a 10% discount for students, seniors and groups.

To order your opportunity to see this amazing production call 1-773-769-4451, or visit www.blackensemble.org

There is street parking, some metered, some not  and indoor valet parking available.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Black Pearl: A Tribute to Josephine Baker”

 

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